What is Trafficking in Persons?

The issue of trafficking in persons from and within Ethiopia has become a critical issue of concern for the country. The level of concern is clearly reflected in the increased media coverage of the situation of victims of trafficking as well as the measures taken by the government to address the problem through legislative, policy and programmatic mechanisms. While the current attention to the issue is to be commended, there also appears to be some level of confusion as to what trafficking in persons is. The current brief article is an attempt to help clarify the problem.


The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Person, Especially Women and Children that supplements the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (2000), known as the Palermo Protocol, defines trafficking in human beings as: ‘the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation’. Where children are concerned, the Protocol stipulates that ‘recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered ‘trafficking in persons’ even if this does not involve any of the means set forth in the definition.’ Trafficking in persons consists of three essential components: 1st) Recruitment – by force or deception; 2nd) Transportation – within a country or across borders, legally or illegally; and, 3rd) Exploitation – traffickers financially benefit through the use or sale of the victim.

The complex phenomenon of trafficking is often confused with other forms of people movement, such as irregular migration and smuggling. As a result, people who have been trafficked are treated as criminals rather than victims. Migration is the movement of people from one place to another within a country, or from one country to another prompted by the need for work, a better life, the fear of persecution, work, the horrors of war or disaster, or just because they want to live somewhere else.

A study conducted by IOM and other institutions indicated that 76.7% of all Ethiopian migrant workers living in the Middle Eastern countries engaged in different sectors of employment are victims of trafficking. Other studies have indicated that 7.5% of all Ethiopian migrants who have left their country for employment and other purposes were between the ages of 13 – 17 years at the time of their migration. The Study also showed that 87.1% of these migrants were trafficked.The Ethiopian Embassy in South Africa estimated that approximately 45,000 to 50,000 Ethiopians live in South Africa. It is estimated that 95% or more of these Ethiopian arrivals enter South Africa through irregular means.

Although it is difficult to find detailed and comprehensive information, the situation within the country is similar. One indicator is the fact that in Addis Ababa alone there are more than 1000 illegal brokers, while in the regions there are between 8 to 25 and even more illegal brokers.

Causes of Trafficking in Persons

Generally poverty and economic desperation compounded by evidence of neighbours and friends with family members who are prospering abroad has created a strong interest and dedication to migrate from Ethiopia. Fifty-two per cent of the Ethiopian respondents in the IOM study claimed they left their homeland because of unemployment and lack of opportunity, while 36% claimed they were driven to seek greener pastures due to poverty. Another push factor is the traditional expectation for sons to provide for their families and the opportunities that the outside world can afford them. Women and girls are also pushed to migration and made vulnerable to illegal brokers due to gender based violence as well as economic reasons.

Consequences of Trafficking in Persons

Traffickers use a range of coercive techniques to control their victims throughout the process of trafficking. Given the fact that the main purpose of trafficking in persons is to profit from the exploitation of victims, traffickers make sure that their victims remain submissive and not try to escape in order to protect their interests. These include debt bondage; isolation, through the removal of identity and travel documents; isolation through the prevention of communicating with their families, friends and people coming from the same area or country; use of violence and fear; and use and threat of reprisals against victims’ families. From the first phase of trafficking process, which is recruitment, onward, the victim may suffer serious violation of her/his human rights, as recruitment mostly occurs in a situation where the victim is forced, deceived and misguided. During transportation and upon arrival at the destination, the victim may repetitively be physically, sexually and psychologically abused. Where the victim is rendered ‘undocumented’, the victim is trapped in a condition where he/she cannot even seek help or assistance from authorities if ever s/he knows where to go for assistance. If ever, victims manage to escape, they may be re-victimized by authorities for breaking immigration laws. The existence of trafficking is also a threat to the economic development of a community. If the problem is not adequately addressed, and protection is not available to potential and actual victims, corruption might thrive and the Government might loose public confidence and trust.

Techniques Used by Traffickers

People enter the process of trafficking through recruitment by people. Most are lured into the process by a false promise of an opportunity, deceived by misinformation or lies, or pushed by need or desperation. In some cases, victims are aware that they are to be employed in a given activity but do not know the conditions in which they will be working. In other situations, victims may be forced or coerced, and in extreme cases abducted. The recruitment may be made by family relatives, friends, neighbours, brokers, recruitment agencies, etc.

Once the victims are recruited, they are transported from one place to another town, area, or country. This may involve someone or a group of people to facilitate and arrange the movement, provide for false travel documents, and provide for shelter along the way. There are instances, where corrupt border guards, immigration or law enforcement personnel and officials are also involved. Transport providers may or may not know the nature of their cargo.

The main purpose of recruiting and transporting a victim in this case, is to exploit his/her by engaging him/her for instance into prostitution, domestic servitude, forced labour, and in some instances for body organs removal. The main purpose is thus to profit from the exploitation of the victims. Someone or a group of people may at the destination point, organize the reception process, and seize any documentation, including passport, and thus rendering the victim ‘undocumented’ and an easy target of law enforcement officials for violating immigration regulations. However, it should be noted that although some victims are brought into the destination countries illegally, others may enter using legal travel documents or valid work visas. Traffickers usually put their victims in prison-like confinement, to prevent them from returning or escaping or moving on. They also use force and threats to force them to perform work that is exploitative,

Profile of Traffickers

Studies conducted in Ethiopia have identified five categories of traffickers distinguishable in terms of their identity, modes of operation and their role in the trafficking process.

In the first category belong local/community level traffickers who are often members of the same communities they target. These traffickers create a conducive context for trafficking through misinformation or other means and start the trafficking process by recruiting potential migrants. Usually, local brokers work with other traffickers who would take up the task of recruiting and transporting the victims through regular and irregular channels.

The second category consists of smugglers responsible for the transportation, harbouring and smuggling of migrants in an irregular migration. This type of traffickers receive the victims from local brokers, usually in groups, and are likely to transfer them to another trafficker in the same category somewhere along the route before they reach the destination country.

The third set consists of brokers in cities who operate as agents in the facilitation of migration and employment in destination countries in the regular way. Again, the victims are transferred by the local brokers to this category of brokers for delivery to traffickers at the destination. These groups operate as agencies without licenses.

The fourth group consists of returnees and family members of returnees from destination countries, who are facilitating employment of migrants on an individual basis. These are migrants who have turned into the business of trafficking as recruiters and facilitators of persons for exploitative purposes using deception and the vulnerability of their potential victims.

The last category, destination point traffickers, consists of those who facilitate regular and irregular migration in destination countries. Destination point traffickers have a varied profile including local brokers at destination points, employment agencies or even migrants and victims having become traffickers themselves. These are the persons who put the victim in situations of abuse and exploitation using fraud, abuse of vulnerability and coercion. In at least some cases these traffickers are more directly involved in the exploitation of the victim, benefit from the exploitation, or are the perpetrators of the exploitation.

Challenges and Problems Faced by Trafficking Victims

The consequences of trafficking on the victims are manifold and devastating. The perilous journey through irregular migration and smuggling routes to the destination, hazardous working conditions and abuse and exploitation in the hands of traffickers throughout the process of trafficking have significant and long lasting impact on the lives of victims. There are even cases where they lose their lives due to the actions of traffickers or accidents.

At the personal level, victims of trafficking spend their youth in adverse circumstances far from their communities. As such, their time for personal development, intellectual advancement and spiritual growth is lost to the traffickers. Aggravated by exploitation, abuse and vulnerability they become susceptible to extreme personality disorders involving loss of sense of self, fairness and justice. This may also be both a cause and effect of engagement of victims in illicit activities.

From the social perspective, traffickers take the victim out of her normal social context one of limited and distorted social relationships, enhanced vulnerability far from any social safety-net. To make matters worse, victims are put into circumstances where their basic beliefs are challenged (e.g. being forced to participate in the religious practices of employers). Such social isolation and psycho-social pressure will have life-long impact on the victim. As a result, many victims face challenges to fit back into their own communities upon return.

Even the economic and financial aspirations of the victim will be negatively impacted upon through the experience of trafficking and exploitation. At the outset, the high fees required by traffickers are likely to put the family in debt. Often times the victim, whose salary is not likely to be paid regularly or in full, has little to show for her suffering by the time she is able or forced to go home. The long term economic prospects of the victim are also compromised since she would have spent her young years for the enrichment of the traffickers.

By far the most evident consequences of trafficking for the victims relate to their health and safety. Various studies have shown that mental health problems, physical injuries and even death of victims is not uncommon. There are reported cases where the victim returned with serious physical injuries such as a broken leg and having received the body of a victim without explanation. In the majority of cases the victims suffer from mental and other health problems such as broken limbs, burns on their skins, malnourishment and the physical effects of sexual abuse. There are also cases where victims have lost memory of their last days at the place of work and report finding themselves in a police station, hospital or even in the Addis Ababa International Airport.

How to identify Victims


Although trafficking is a clandestine affair, its results often hidden away behind the closed doors of exploitative workplaces or brothels, there are times when it comes more prominently into public view. The most visible moments in trafficking are during recruitment, when a border is crossed, and sometimes at the end when children are being exploited. Recruitment is by nature a relatively open process since it often works by word-of-mouth and by person-to-person connections being made. Border crossings are relatively open to scrutiny. Transport hubs are also places where traffickers and children may be recognized – for example bus and railway stations, ferry terminals or airports. Also, exploitation by unscrupulous employers in a range of different sectors and types of work is sometimes visible to the public.


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Saturday, 20 April 2024