By Millicent Zighe
Burundi has been flagged as a major source of human trafficking in women and children for sexual exploitation, slavery and armed combat.
Statistics from the United States Department of State show that nearly 70,000 people in Burundi including refugees in host countries contributed to the total of at least 800,000 people trafficked worldwide in 2018. The situation is so dire that the Burundi government has established an ad hoc committee from the First Vice President’s office to tackle the crisis.
Gaston Sindimwo, Burundi’s First Vice President, early this month said during the launch of the Integrated Work Plan Against Trafficking in Persons 2019-2020, “We are aware that human trafficking cannot be fought effectively without an integrated approach based on respect for human rights and taking into account the national, regional and global nature of the phenomenon.” The plan brings together the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Netherlands embassy to devise measures to combat human trafficking.
IOM and the US State Department have documented cases of coercion, forced labour, domestic servitude and prostitution. Traffickers reportedly exploit children and women in private homes, guesthouses and entertainment establishments.
The political crisis in Burundi has frayed social networks and made the population vulnerable. Women have been reportedly offering underage girls to work in brothels within poor regions of the country as boys also immerse themselves in human trafficking to pay for their basic needs. Inside Burundi’s prisons, female inmates have been reportedly facilitating transactional sex between male prisoners and children. Violence in the country has largely been blamed for increased sex trafficking among girls especially while on transit to neighbouring countries. In Kigeme refugee camp, for example, girls have become victims.
Relatives and friends take advantage of the poverty brought about by the political crisis in the country to lure people in with promises of well paying jobs. They are later shipped to countries in the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Upon arrival their passports are confiscated and they are made to work for excessive hours with no pay. In addition to that, many suffer torture and mental abuse at the hands of their employers.
In March this year, police in Kenya rescued 25 Burundian women suspected to be victims of human trafficking in Ruiru, Kiambu County. The women were being held captive before transfer to unknown countries in Asia. Kenya has in the past been named as a source, transit point and destination country for human trafficking.
Burundi refugees who have fallen prey to human traffickers in Mahama camp South Western Rwanda are being forcibly trained in weaponry. Security personnel, responsible for protecting refugees, are said to be facilitating the criminal activities. Their predicament is exacerbated by the failure by the Rwanda government to prosecute perpetrators who are alleged to have strong ties to the regime in Kigali. Rwanda has also been reportedly targeting refugees for reprisals, raising protection concerns in camps and making it difficult to establish the true extent of the trafficking crisis.
The US State Department notes that Burundi’s government has failed to prosecute or convict any suspected trafficking offenders, including State officials. The country has also failed to establish procedures to assist in identification of victims say for civil society organizations, a situation that has allowed perpetrators to walk scot free.
Nonetheless the IOM partnership with Burundi is likely change the situation for citizens and refugees by engaging communities and security agencies to combat human trafficking and boarder crimes. “This three-year project will not only help combat trafficking and other cross-border crimes, such as migrant smuggling, but also improve the human security of communities affected by human trafficking and provide appropriate support to victims of trafficking,” said IOM Burundi Chief of Mission AJ Morgen.
IOM is responsible analyses and disseminates information about movements of internally displaced persons worldwide. Volunteers from the Burundian Red Cross (BRC) consult with key informants, who include community leaders, local government authorities and religious leaders to identify displacement trends and the needs of communities.