A poster used in campaigns against human trafficking. Taken from Nation Media Group.
A visit to the Shimoni Slave Caves in Kwale, Mombasa, is a reminder of the horror that human beings are capable of. Roughly hewn and averaging about 5-kilometres-long, the Shimoni caves were used as a holding area for slaves before they were ferried away. Even today, old iron shackles, wooden crates, rusted chains, and metal studs that were once used are still visible and preserved as a reminder of these atrocities.
Between the medieval era and the early 20th century, Arab slave traders captured the Zanj (Bantu speaking peoples) from present-day Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique, and brought them to the coast for further ‘export’. Some of the enslaved remained in East Africa, often in Kenya, to grow food and spices on plantations. Others were shipped to various countries bordering the Indian Ocean. Conditions for slaves were considered to be extremely harsh and miserable.
“Arab slave caravans colluded with their African counterparts to capture and drive slaves from the interior before being brought [to Shimoni], awaiting transportation. Many died while being tortured or castrated,” Ayub Masumbuko, a tour guide working onsite, told the Daily Nation.
August 23rd has officially been recognised by UNESCO as the International Day for Remembrance of Slave Trade and its Abolition, calling for reflection and remembrance of the dark histories and events that took place during the previously mentioned East African Slave Trade and additionally the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Looking back, it can be easy to assume that slave ownership and trade is something of the past and only a matter of concern for historians. Unfortunately, slavery has not disappeared; it exists today in various forms, mainly behind closed doors.
An estimated 40 million people worldwide still live in slavery. In Africa, there are over hundreds of thousands, but in East Africa especially, the trafficking of humans has become a growing concern for the international community and it has persisted through the “advantage of conflicts, humanitarian disasters and the vulnerability of people in situations of crisis,” according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Kenya has been flagged as a major point of source, transit, and destination for persons subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking in East Africa. Within the past five years, human traffickers have exploited domestic and foreign victims in Kenya, and traffickers have also exploited victims from Kenya abroad. In conjunction with NGOs, Kenyan authorities last year identified and referred to care at least 400 trafficking victims. Men, women, and children are all victims of abduction, forced labour, and sexual exploitation, however, a previous article from the Aga Khan University East Africa Institute alludes particularly to the growing numbers of women and girls in the sex tourism industry. Trafficking networks and recruitment agencies are taking girls as young as ten-years-old, to be placed mainly in coastal areas and informal settlements for sexual exploitation. Many women are driven into sexual exploitation particularly due to the economic inequality they often face.
Between the East African Slave trade and the examples of human trafficking we see today, history is repeating itself; and the crux of the matter is economic. Traffickers are exploiting humans for their own gain, but what is even more tragic is the reality that many victims are baited into joining the network of trafficking through the false promise of creating a better life for themselves. In an article from The Star, Former Attorney General for Kenya, Githu Muigai explains:
"We know that due to the social-economic dynamism of labour migration and development in the world today, many people are seeking better lives for themselves. Men and women are crossing borders in search of employment; among these are the many who are deceived as well as those who risk everything to change their life situations. These activities are being carried out by transnational criminal cartels out to make money.”
A recently released 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report has classified Kenya in the Tier 2 category, which means that the government does not yet fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), but is making efforts to bring themselves into compliance with these standards. This annual report has classified Kenya under Tier 2 since 2008.
It is evident that perpetrators are not getting the sentences that they deserve and adults who have been trafficked are receiving an uneven amount of protective services. Victims of human trafficking are often unable to access services, especially outside of urban centres, and very little effort and proactive action are made to investigate cases of human trafficking. According to the report, Kenyan authorities "continue to treat some victims as criminals, and the availability of protective services for adult victims remains negligible”. When traffickers actually happen to face persecution, they are charged under the less severe sentences of immigration and trafficking laws, as opposed to facing charges under the The Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2010.
The report further reveals that victims are more likely to face persecution than traffickers. The most common means through which traffickers have avoided more stringent sentences have been through “fraudulently obtained identity documents from complicit officials,” and the police accepting “bribes to warn traffickers of impending operations and investigations, particularly along the Coast”.
Kenyan lawyer and Sex Trafficking expert from Equality Now, Anita Nyanjong, expressed in a recent interview with KTN News the urgent need for victims to have the necessary protection mechanisms in order to address the “gaps in legislation”. Even releasing photos and the names of victims in the media without their permission is, in her view, a violation of their rights and strongly contradicts the provisions of the TVPA.
In the move towards a fairer justice system, activists like Nyanjong believe that an effective step forward would be advocating for more education for all levels of government around the unique challenges of trafficking, the different forms of trafficking, and most proactively, how trafficking manifests itself. Creating this necessary awareness can work towards an end in history repeating itself, and capacity building for the country as a whole.
Nina Plummer is an EAI Research Assistant, conducting research on malnutrition, early childhood development, and learning outcomes.