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Refugees smuggling and trafficking: the case of East and Horn of Africa


By Samuel Bekalo

The causes and consequences of human trafficking/smuggling

It is well documented that, through the cumulative effects of political-economy mismanagements and subsequent conflicts, the most vulnerable groups of society become internally or externally displaced and destitute refugees. This, in turn, leads many to fall into the hands of human smugglers and traffickers; albeit the fact that it is sometimes difficult to make a distinction between being smuggled and trafficked.  The definitions of 'human trafficking', cited in a major report published by the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC, 2006), include the recruitment and transportation as well as harbouring or receipt of persons for the purpose of labour and sextual exploitations, through the use of force or coercion. Wilson and Dalton (2008) clarify the distinction between 'smuggling' and 'trafficking', saying that 'smuggling' involves a transaction between willing parties, while 'trafficking' is the attempt to profit from the exploitation of a trafficked person. It should be noted, however, that in many refugee cases the distinction between a smuggled and trafficked person can still be blurred in terms of definitions and application. This has been collectively and widely referred to as a modern-day slavery, including by the UK government (Modern Slavery Act - MSA 2015) and the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings which was adopted in 2009. And yet, many victims have neither the awareness of being the victim of the mal practices of modern-day slavery nor the confidence to report them to the relevant authorities. To address this and to combat the causes and consequence of modern-day slavery, the UK Home Office for example has created the Human Trafficking Centre and National Referral Mechanism to assist potential victims and deal with the perpetrators.

Unfortunately, despite some signs of improvements towards good governance and the introduction of additional legislations, the political-economy and security problems which create displacements and refugees in the first place are still prominent in the region of East and Horn of Africa. These effects have been exacerbated by climate change-related prolonged droughts and floods. As a result, the region has produced some of the highest numbers of refugees in the world, perhaps until the most recent Middle East conflicts which triggered the unprecedented millions of refugees’ exodus to Europe and beyond to other Western countries. If we take Eritrea as an example, it has been described as one of the world’s most refugee producing countries. However, only the minority of brave and lucky refugees make it to the so-called safe third countries in the West. Then, they begin the new challenges of dealing with past traumatic experiences and of building a new life. They try to do so assisted by the respective host countries’ authorities and communities; particularly and increasingly by the voluntary charity sectors and faith groups due to the continuous budget cuts by the central governments. In this process, the smuggled and trafficked refugees and migrants narrate their case stories. In so doing, they provide valuable information to the relevant authorities to understand their plights better and to formulate progressive action plans to address the consequences, and also to reflect on the causes, of human smuggling/trafficking.

Drawing upon the first-hand stories and experiences of the refugees and migrants from East and Horn of Africa, who made it to the shore of Europe and then to the UK, this article sheds light on the issue of human smuggling/trafficking. In particular, if focuses on those dispersed to the cosmopolitan cities across the UK (including to Leeds, where the author is based) through the dispersal programme, which was introduced by Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Due to overcrowding and lack of social accommodations in the capital London, the dispersal programme was introduced with the intention not to overburden one local authority, but to distribute the responsibilities of hosting new refugees across the country. This article presents some anecdotal material, derived from data that have been collected through longitudinal and informal interviews of their representatives both in the UK and in East and Horn of Africa, spanning over a decade (some of this was used in earlier publications; Bekalo 2014, 2012, 2007).  The stories provide insights into how refugees and forced migrants make sense of mistreatments and displacements as well as strive to build a new life.

The Stories of the Problems of Misinformation/Disinformation

It is generally understood that, irrespective of having accurate or inaccurate information, the most desperate people who face immediate danger or see no hope of positive changes in their life attempt to escape to greener pastures. However, many set off with romanticised or false expectations spread by human smugglers/traffickers. As pointed out by Dragiewicz (2014) and Segrave (2016), amongst others, one example is supplying incorrect employment opportunities or misleading information about the ease of reaching sought after destination countries. As a result, what began as human smuggling, ends up as human trafficking or modern-day slavery for some. These are the stories often shared, by the victims of human smugglers/traffickers themselves. In the UK it is common to come across such stories in the refugees’ popular hangout places (e.g., internet cafes, coffee shops and barbers’ shops which are springing up everywhere) as well as during community events. Perhaps, their experiences are better illustrated in a conversational format as follows. This one took place in a house communal event:

A group of friends, who came to pay respect to a mourning fellow refugee woman, greet and talk to a man in his 50s whom they have not seen for a few years, after the initial asylum refugee processing centre in the capital. Perhaps, because the man was smartly dressed for the occasion, they all assumed his refugee status and employment situation were sorted. They complimented him by saying that he looks great and implied that he must have been doing well all those years in terms of job and life. The man replied, with a sarcastic and sad tone, that his life has been messed up from the start because of the wrong information he was given by the agent/ human trafficker. He complained that they never mentioned to him about the asylum process and what to do after entering the country. He said he was told that, so long as he managed to put his foot on the ‘Queen’s country’ (i.e., the UK), there should be no problem, and that he would automatically get free social housing and benefit money. On top of that, he was told that if he was not afraid of work, he could do two or more jobs and clear his debts in no time.

After 5 years, he found himself with no refugee status and penniless chatting with old acquaintances. Then, the man asked what the event was about, adding that he just accompanied a friend who came by to pay respect, since he had nothing to do and was bored. One of the group members explained the situation as follows:

The woman’s brother was drowned with many people who were trying to cross the Mediterranean by rubber boat, from Libya to Italy. The unusual thing, however, is this woman has been doubly unlucky. Last year, her other brother also perished on route to here in similar circumstance. Because of this, her marriage too has suffered. From what I gather, her husband was fed up of constantly sending large sums of money for her brothers to pay the agents/human traffickers and left her. Maybe they got a bad agent like you. The good ones know the best routes, but are very expensive. Anyways, I am starving. Let me grab some food before it finishes. I may see you some time in the future.

The Stories of the Problems of Changes of Events and Agents

Typically, to move people from place to place or across nations, the agents or human traffickers have and make use of chains of contacts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main agents or traffickers do not self-identify, but use their foot soldiers to do their work. According to the people who used their services and as reported by Bekalo (op cit. 2014, 2012, 2007), the top ones use discreet telephone contacts to ensure payment is made by whoever is paying (usually the family members of ‘captives’ based in foreign countries), before they send or release them to the next destination. If one does not pay the hefty fee, then s/he will possibly be subjected to long detention in notorious transit houses or camps and face additional physical and sexual exploitations. For those, who were forced to pass through several countries, the matter becomes more complicated. In this regard, Libya is a prime example. In the past, due to its proximity to Italy/Europe and its oil rich economy, food and shelter were less scarce. Hence, refugees and migrants used to use it as a springboard to reach the shores of Europe. However, since the late Mohamed Gadafi’s regime had collapsed, Libya has been engulfed in civil war and large parts of the country are controlled by different factions and war lords. Inevitably, the overall situation is making life more difficult and dangerous to both the refugees/migrants and the human smugglers/traffickers. As a consequence of this flawed security, there are ambiguities surrounding who is who or be sure of who controls a given area, often disrupting the routes and business chains of the seasoned human smugglers/traffickers. According to the refugee victims’ stories highlighted below, there are frequent abductions of refugees by different faction groups, who demand large sums of money and/or forced labour. It is unclear whether the agents themselves are part of the whole scheme. In any event, entering and exiting such countries becomes more dangerous and expensive for refugees and migrants.

The next stories reflecting the above, took place at a ‘refugee’ barber shop which I frequently visit. It is run by a group of five male barbers, who came a long way to get refugee status after crisscrossing the arduous Sudanese and Libyan deserts and the Mediterranean Sea, and now own a barber shop in the formerly rundown part of the city. According to their stories, none of them have professional barber qualifications or anything like that, but they master the art by trial and error, cutting each other’s hair. Conversationally, all seemed happy until the TV news about the refugee boat tragedy in the Mediterranean. Then, I noted an abrupt shift in their tone and facial expressions. Barber 1, referring to his customer having a haircut, shouted:

Listen, he is telling me that he was in Libya 6 months ago. He is saying he lives on borrowed time because he escaped from near death situations multiple times.

By the sound of the story, the man seems to be one of those toughened during harsh years of national military service in his country of origin. Since he had no family abroad to pay for agents and finance his trip, he had to work almost as a slave for many years for human traffickers who eventually let him go by derelict boat; because being a self-taught car mechanic he used his skills to work for the human traffickers, replacing a large lorry engine into their smaller 4-wheeled car to outmanoeuvre border patrols and cut through the desert sandy road. He complained that he could not get a similar job in the UK, without formal certification or qualifications, adding that the skills he acquired through trial and error are probably as good as college graduates. He finished by saying:

You know, until now, I never settled in one country or in one place. No wife, no children, no nothing. People advised me that I should attend as many weddings and community events as possible to increase my chances of getting a potential wife. That is where I am heading now, to a wedding in our community centre, and I am running late. How do I look (checking his new cut hair)?

All the barbers complimented him and wished him En Sha Allah (i.e. an Arabic word which roughly translates as ‘God willing’) in finding a future wife. After the stories of the man and the sad TV news, the mood in the barbers was not the same. It became rather sober. My hair cut concluded, and I left without a word, as I’ve learned from previous insensitivities which had ended my conversation and relation with another group. I did not wish to jeopardise my good relations, and the gathering of useful information in an informal way.

Lessons Learnt from and Acted Upon Such Stories and Experiences

Although the above stories and experiences are not necessarily exclusive to the East and Horn of Africa refugees or to a particular area, the methods of getting accurate information from the refugees and of formulating strategies to address the causes and consequences of human smuggling/trafficking can vary, depending on the diverse socio-political and cultural backgrounds, and the levels of traumatic experiences individuals or groups face. For example, I have observed in my own studies referred to above and as pointed out by David Palmer (2007), those who came from a conservative society and repressive regime, often lack the confidence and experience to open up and discuss their case stories quickly and fully. Others’ anxieties after mistreatment and abuse can manifest in a range of forms including exhibiting confusion, memory loss and/or lack of concentration. The young or vulnerable ones, with little or no innate coping mechanism, can run into all sorts of trouble. This is particularly the case if they don’t get appropriate support from the relevant professional bodies. It is, therefore, important to understand and consider all of the above in order to get an accurate picture of the overall situation and devise better ways of addressing the cause and consequences of human smuggling/trafficking.

Encouragingly, through my own field research observations and from the other reports cited in this paper, I note exemplar works in combatting human smuggling/trafficking including interception and prosecution of traffickers. Raising public awareness and maximising government interventions have been some of the useful works. Realising the extent and the complexity of the problems associated with human smuggling/trafficking and the difficulty of addressing it through border control alone, some governments are making positive interventions to address the unregulated and illegal human migration. In Ethiopia, for example, the government has recently started using public media and high-profile conferences to raise public awareness about the problems of informal or illegal migration and human trafficking. In addition, it has decentralised the employment of migrant bureaus to local areas, to disrupt the work of the middlemen who facilitate human trafficking and closely monitor the whole process. Utilising social media has also been taken and found to be advantageous to fight against human smuggling/trafficking. This is because the above high-profile government interventions and actions feed into community and wider social media. This is critical and beneficial in this digital age, given the widely reported fact that human traffickers use social media or digital platforms to lure potential victims, particularly to coerce them into modern day labour and sextual slavery. Following the government supported mass public awareness intervention, I have observed a growing number of communities, social and mass media activities to report incidences of human trafficking abuses, both at home and abroad in addition to wider campaigns for victims’ justice. Such platforms appear to offer new opportunities for victims of human trafficking who have access to social media, giving them the confidence to report their ordeals anonymously and get assistance, if they can.

In all of the above, partnership/networking has also been seen to be critical and needs to be utilised. Since any positive initiatives and actions need to be sustained through the building of partnerships with stakeholders, the local authorities have started working with relevant national and international organisations. One such example is the UK-Ethiopia joint efforts to combat human trafficking, which raises awareness by conducting commemoration of victim events such as the World Day Against Human Trafficking (British Embassy Addis Ababa and Semonegna News, 2017). The work comprises capacity building with immigration and port officials, to detect and make the country a difficult place for traffickers to operate, and to tackle the illegal flow of migration.

In any case, working with victims of community groups in refugee community settings is essential, not least because they can learn first-hand the dynamics of the everchanging human trafficking techniques and smuggling routes. I say this because, as highlighted above referring to community hubs, their nearest and dearest are often the victims of human trafficking and they quickly open up to them to give crucial information. Understandably, working with such groups on such sensitive and secretive issues won’t be a straightforward matter. It requires, amongst other skills, confidence building by working in equal partnership with trusted key community and faith group representatives.

Refugees and Migrants Host Countries Policy and Practice

It is encouraging and worth acknowledging that some of the counties, both near and far, that receive and host smuggled/trafficked refugees offer support as much as resources permit. In particular, the neighbouring poor countries which are struggling to provide basic services for their own citizens continue to provide relative peace and security to millions of refugees who regularly cross into their borders. In East Africa, Uganda and Sudan can be taken as an example. In mainland Europe, Germany, which recently accepted unprecedent large number of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, is another good example of positive policy shift and practice. When refugees and asylum seekers happen to arrive on their island shores, the UK is progressive in receiving and assisting victims of human smuggling/trafficking as well as political refugees. The initial and the later asylum appeal processes, for example, are well organised and largely fair.

Whilst the above protection provisions and general welfare support are commendable, it remains a challenging issue when it comes to dealing with the complex problems of human smuggling/trafficking. It is not easy to detect and prevent the clandestine malpractices of human smuggling/trafficking as well as support the victims. Once again, dealing with and addressing such complex problems requires skilled or professional people as well as financial and physical resources. Although these are in short supply in many places, some authorities are taking positive strides to deal with the complex issues. Encouragingly, in addition to the creation of new policies and legislations to deal with human smuggling/trafficking, a number of countries are putting in place professional experts to identify and support victims of human smuggling/trafficking. If we take the UK as an example once again, which is a relatively progressive country when it comes to dealing with vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers: it has set up a specialist team in the Home Office department to deal with this problem of forced human smuggling/trafficking which they broadly categorise as modern-day slavery. As part of this process, when one is suspected or believed to be a victim of modern-day slavery during the asylum and/or immigration cases hearings, s/he will be offered a specialist support service through the aforementioned National Referral Mechanism. Interestingly, and rightly so, this is a consent-based service whereby individuals engage voluntarily. If one is not sure about the process and the possible outcomes, a period of reflection is offered, during which applicants can consult their legal representative to make their decision.

To conclude, notwithstanding the above positive steps taken to combat human smuggling/trafficking, there is much more work needed to be done to reduce the problem (if not completely eradicate it). Since the problems are widespread and pervasive, it will require extensive engagement from a range of networking partnerships amongst nations and institutions. Local community and faith groups, who have a first-hand contact with and knowledge about such victims, need to be included when formulating strategies and action plans to expedite the eradication of the human smuggling/trafficking. It will be useful to periodically review the issues raised here, to look at the emerging new challenges and opportunities, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this most vulnerable community group.


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Dr Samuel Ayele Bekalo is a freelance Research Fellow/East and Horn of Africa Refugee and Migration Expert based in Leeds-UK and former student/academic staff of Leeds University

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