Time to Act to Stop Modern Slave Trade

Date Publish: 
South Africa / Africa and Middle East

For Letty – a young woman in her twenties from Gauteng
– the offer was irresistible. Forced to drop out of college
because of financial constraints at home and struggling to find
paid work in South Africa, her friend Angela’s call seemed a

Effusive and convincing, Angela told Letty that in Ireland she
could complete her studies in less than a year and – better
still – would not necessarily have to pay. There was
tradition in Ireland, her friend claimed, of wealthy families
offering to pay for the education of people from disadvantaged
backgrounds, and plenty of opportunities to work part-time to earn
extra cash. She’d see whether she could find Letty such a

Angela contacted Letty again some weeks later. She was told to meet
Danny, a Nigerian national who lived in Pretoria, and whom Angela
claimed was her boyfriend. He would make all the travel
arrangements. A family had been found.

But what awaited Letty in Dublin was neither education nor
employment, but something much more sinister. She had fallen victim
to a human trafficking syndicate. Her so-called benefactors had no
intention of assisting her in obtaining an education, but had
bought her over from South Africa to provide cheap domestic labour.
She found herself locked up in a family home by day and forced to
work as a care-giver for the family’s children. Her passport
was taken.

Letty managed to escape and is now back in South Africa and
recovering from her ordeal with support from the International
Organization for Migration’s Southern African
Counter-Trafficking Assistance Programme (SACTAP). But her story is
a poignant reminder that, as the world marks the 200th anniversary
of the abolition of transatlantic slave trade, a modern form of
slavery - human trafficking - is happening in our midst.

Human trafficking is one of the most tragic aspects of contemporary
migration, with one million people estimated to have been
trafficked across borders annually. The trade is now considered the
third largest source of profits for transnational criminal
organisations, with only drug trafficking and weapons smuggling
more lucrative.

Lured by false promises of well-paying jobs and other
opportunities, many victims willing accept the services offered by
human traffickers without realizing the full nature of their future
employment or the conditions in which they will work. Once firmly
trapped in an alien environment, they are most often forced into
prostitution or bonded labour to earn profits for their

Violence, threats of violence and confiscation of identity
documents and passports are used to prevent escape. The fact
trafficked persons find themselves in an unfamiliar environment
compounds their plight. Away from their families and social
networks, it is difficult to know who to turn to for help.

Having carried out research in the region since 2002, IOM believes
that trafficking in persons is flourishing in Southern Africa, with
South Africa and its expanding sex industry the main destination
for trafficked women in the region.

IOM estimates that at least 1,000 women are trafficked from
Mozambique each year into South Africa, with poverty a huge factor
in their susceptibility. After being promised jobs as waitresses,
they commonly find themselves working in Johannesburg’s sex
industry or sold in mining areas as “wives” and forced
to act as domestic servants and sex slaves.

IOM is also aware of women trafficked to South Africa from South
East Asia, Eastern Europe and other African countries. And as
Letty’s experience reveals, trafficking can also personally
affect the lives of individual South Africans.

Letty returned to South Africa with two other young women who were
also forced to undertake domestic work in Ireland and claims to
have met several other South African women in a similar predicament
at a church in Ireland attended by her employers. IOM has also
assisted two South Africans trafficked to the Middle-East.

South Africa is waking up to the threat of human trafficking. In
2004, South Africa signed the UN protocol to Prevent, Suppress and
Punish Trafficking in Persons. This committed South Africa to
criminalize trafficking and develop legislation against it.

Trafficking thrives in part because it offers traffickers high
profits with relatively low risks. South Africa’s
anti-trafficking legislation will help change this opportunity
structure as it will add to the arsenal that law enforcement can
use to prosecute traffickers.

But, to truly combat human trafficking, individuals and communities
need to be actively aware of the phenomenon and what they can do to
tackle it.

But recent IOM research reveals that only 31 percent of South
Africans consider human trafficking a problem in South Africa, and
that only 9 percent of people feel that trafficking is a problem in
their own community or suburb.

When asked why they thought trafficking was a problem in South
Africa, respondents’ answers ranged from worries about
illegal migration to concern about trafficking victims’ human
rights. No-one identified trafficking as a threat to them or their

IOM is responding to this by mounting public information campaigns
to raise awareness of human trafficking. It is also embarking on a
project to train civil society activists in South Africa to raise
awareness of trafficking in their communities from the ground up.

Human trafficking is happening. We need to wake up, as individuals
and as communities, to the reality of the threat. Only then can we
suppress - and ultimately eradicate - this modern slave trade

Rebecca Wynn works for the
IOM’s Southern African Counter-Trafficking Assistance
Programme (SACTAP). Readers can call IOM’s Human Trafficking
Help Line – 0800 555 999 – for information and
assistance on combating trafficking.

•Names have been changed to protect identities.
© IOM 2007