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Members of the Africa Diaspora Forum (ADF), civil society organisations, churches, trade unions and other coalitions wear chains and shout slogans during a demonstration against the slave trade and human trafficking in Libya on December 12, 2017 at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. The UN Security Council on December 7 said reports that migrants detained in Libyan camps were being sold into slavery could amount to "crimes against humanity" in a joint statement of condemnation.
Members of the Africa Diaspora Forum and civil society organizations protest against human trafficking and slavery in Libya in December 2017 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo via AFP)

Ninety-six Ugandan women, mostly children and youth, were stopped at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi in January en route to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for work opportunities. The girls, who lacked proper employment papers, were victims of a well-established human trafficking ring in East Africa, headquartered in Kenya and operating under the guise of employment agencies.

This wasn’t the first such interception. Almost every month, Kenya’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations reports at least one interception involving victims not only from Uganda but also from Burundi, Rwanda, and to a lesser extent Tanzania. Most of East Africa’s trafficking takes place in and through Kenya.


Human trafficking routes from East Africa to the Middle East

Human trafficking routes from East Africa to the Middle East


The Trafficking Value Chain

Traditionally, the value chain of this criminal network has comprised three links. First are regionally based recruitment brokers who ferry people from their respective countries to Kenya. Second are the Kenyan-based links who “receive” the people and act as the country’s employment agencies. They move victims from Kenya to the host country. Third are the counterparts who often pose as foreign employment agencies. They are stationed in the host country and “receive” people sent from Kenya.

Recent cases and new research by the ENACT organized crime project suggest a shift in the workings of the trafficking value chain as far as the third “link” is concerned. There is evidence that the trafficking of women and girls from East Africa to the Middle East is now being carried out entirely by East Africans.

Interviews with victims revealed that they were received in the foreign country by “familiar faces”. In February 2020, fifty Kenyans, each of whom paid about US$2,000 to supposed employment agencies, were trafficked to the UAE and enslaved in a house by a “Mombasa agent” who has operations in Mombasa and Dubai. The victims said there were many such trafficking houses run by Kenyans in Dubai, housing other East African nationals such as Ugandans and Tanzanians. Most of East Africa’s trafficking takes place in and through Kenya.

A specific case revealed to Lucia Bird, senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, highlights the multinational and regional interconnections. A Ugandan girl was trafficked to Kenya by a Ugandan family friend. A Kenyan national then flew with her to Oman, where she was collected at the airport by an Ethiopian national before being driven to her Omani employers.

Similarly, Angelo Izama, a human trafficking consultant who volunteers on a project for trafficked victims at a church in the UAE, told ENACT of a Ugandan girl recruited to be a receptionist. She was received by a Ugandan in Dubai and forced into sex work.


Regional trafficking networks appear to want to control the entire value chain


While the links in a criminal value chain work together, there is also competition, with operators vying for a greater share of the more profitable elements in the chain. Regional trafficking networks appear to want to control the entire value chain, from sourcing to recruiting victims, trafficking them out of East Africa and receiving them in the foreign country. This well-coordinated and continually shifting transnational crime process is difficult to police and prosecute.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a police officer specializing in human trafficking in East Africa told ENACT that the problem has engulfed the region. This affirms a 2018 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) assessment report that shows an increase in human trafficking in East African countries.

The officer also notes that policing the crime is becoming more difficult. As an example, the officer referred to a joint initiative in 2017 between the Kenyan and Ugandan governments that appeared promising in its anti-trafficking measures. It failed, however, due to a lack of proper intelligence on the criminal value chain and inconsistent engagement between the two countries.


Better Migration Management

Regulating the labor exporting sector is also complicated. As with Kenya, Uganda imposed a ban on labor emigration to the Middle East in 2016, and then lifted it a year later. Ugandan civil society organizations working to counter human trafficking said the ban and its lifting had little impact on trafficking dynamics. They questioned the benefits of exporting labor and highlighted the failure to safeguard those undertaking labor migration.

Regional bodies such as the International Organization for Migration, UNODC, and the European Union have often called for a stronger regional approach to trafficking. The latest is the Better Migration Management program, which advocates for the prevention, protection, and prosecution of human trafficking in East Africa and the Horn of Africa.

East African countries appear to lack power in negotiations with Middle Eastern countries on trafficking issues. This is because of gaps in their domestic legislation and regional trafficking strategies. Yet other regions that export labor to the Middle East have shown that this can be done.

The Philippines, for example, has twenty-three bilateral agreements with seven countries, most of which are in the Middle East. This allows authorities to oversee the protection and safety of workers and prevent them being exploited by trafficking networks and employers in destination countries. The labor export sector makes up a significant portion of the Philippines’ gross domestic product, yet it also comes with challenges and is not an economic cure-all.

East Africa needs to learn from approaches elsewhere that prevent trafficking and protect workers. Until more robust responses are in place, trafficking and exploitation are likely to grow in the region. This perpetuates the vulnerability of poor women and girls, and undermines the prospects of labor exportation as a livelihoods option.


Mohamed Daghar is a researcher with the ENACT project in Nairobi.

This article was first published by the ENACT project. ENACT is funded by the European Union (EU). The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the EU.


Felicien Kabuga
A courtroom sketch of Rwandan genocide suspect Félicien Kabuga, made on May 20, 2020, shows him wearing a face mask as he appeared before the Paris Court of Appeal.

Félicien Kabuga, who is being held in a Parisian jail after he was arrested earlier this month for crimes related to the Rwandan genocide twenty-six years ago, will be transferred to and detained in Arusha, Tanzania, once lockdown-related travel restrictions are lifted. Judge William Sekule of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (MICT) ruled on May 28 in response to a request to temporarily transfer Kabuga to The Hague.

Following his arrest in a Parisian suburb earlier this month, Kabuga appeared before a French court on May 20, where his lawyers said he wanted to be tried in France. The UN tribunal’s prosecutor said a request had already been issued to transfer him to United Nations custody, and that he could initially be held in The Hague rather than in Africa.

The French court is set to rule on June 3 whether to hand him over to the MICT to be tried in Arusha.


The Elusive Genocidaire 

Kabuga had been on the run since the end of the genocide in 1994, passing through several African and European countries before settling in France under a false identity. The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted him in absentia in 1997 on seven counts of genocide, incitement to genocide, and crimes against humanity. When the tribunal was closed in 2015, its responsibilities were transferred to the MICT, which is based in The Hague but also has an office in Arusha.  

A well-connected and highly influential businessman during the rule of President Juvénal Habyarimana, Kabuga stands accused of using his vast wealth to arm the Interahamwe militia that carried out gruesome ethnically-targeted killings against the minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus, contributing to the slaughter of an estimated 1 million people in the span of four months. He also founded Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines, a radio station that broadcast racist propaganda intended to incite violence against Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

For 24 years, Kabuga was always a step ahead of investigators and had dozens of false identities. He escaped Rwanda after the Rwandan Patriotic Front ended the Genocide and has been on the run since. 



Bus Station Social Distancing Rwanda
People waiting at a bus station in Kigali observe social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19.


Rwanda’s Ministry of Health revealed in a series of tweets that it will be using five specialized robots to help manage the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The robots have been designed to administer temperature checks (a high fever is an early symptom of infection from SARS-CoV-2), monitor patients, and check medical records, and have the ability to screen between 50 and 150 people per minute. 

“These robots will fasten service delivery while protecting our valuable health workers against COVID-19 exposure,” said the minister of health Dr. Daniel Ngamije. 

The robots are the product of collaboration between the United Nations Development Programme and the Rwandan Ministry of Information and Communications Technology and Innovation. They are made by a Belgian company, Zora Bots.


An African Tech Leader

Rwanda’s turn to advanced technology to help it cope with the pandemic reflects the country’s success in transforming itself into an African tech hub. President Paul Kagame has called Rwanda the “Singapore of Africa”, alluding to Singapore’s rapid rise as an Asian economic power under former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.



A handout photo released on May 16, 2020 by the Mecanisme pour les Tribunaux penaux internationaux (IRMCT - International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals)/United Nations shows Felicien Kabuga, one of the last key fugitives wanted over the 1994 Rwandan genocide, who was arrested in a Paris suburb on May 16, 2020. Charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) with "genocide", "complicity in genocide", and "direct and public incitement to commit genocide", Kabuga, 84, was living under a false identity outside Paris and people close to him said he had died. Mecanisme pour les Tribunaux penaux internationaux/Nations Unies / AFP
Félicien Kabuga, Rwanda’s most-wanted fugitive, has been arrested.


French police announced they had arrested Rwandan fugitive Félicien Kabuga in Paris on Saturday, May 16. Kabuga is accused of being one of the chief financiers of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, which left more than 800 000 people dead. He had been hiding out in a Parisian suburb under a false identity, according to the French authorities.


Kabuga amassed a vast fortune.


For twenty-six years, Kabuga managed to escape justice, settling in France after fleeing through Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Germany, and Belgium. He was a wealthy businessman with close ties to former Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, whose death when his plane was shot down in 1994 triggered the Rwandan Civil War and the subsequent genocide.

Kabuga owned tea and coffee estates, a flour mill, and expansive real estate in the capital Kigali, and amassed a vast fortune. He became a chief lender for Habyarimana’s National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development party, and was the founder and chief financier of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, which broadcast anti-Tutsi propaganda from July 1993 until the end of the war.

The eighty-four-year-old Kabuga will be transferred to The Hague to stand trial on seven counts, including crimes against humanity.


The Central African Republic (CAR) has commended Rwanda for screening peacekeepers and extending the screening to citizens in the CAR, which has reported nine confirmed COVID-19 cases. Testing for the most recent case, announced on April 2, was carried out by a medical team from the Rwanda Biomedical Centre. Provisions were furnished by the Rwanda Defense Force and the Rwandan government to peacekeepers who are part of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).


Why It Matters

Actions like these help position Rwanda as a regional leader in Central Africa, while also utilizing military forces for more humanitarian purposes, building trust among the local population. The CAR is still largely divided among regional warlords, with national government authority extending barely beyond the capital of Bangui. The mutual threat of COVID-19 could open up a reconciliation path for the country, bringing warring groups together under the auspices of MINUSCA as they carry out viral screenings and treatment campaigns. Rwanda’s leading role could also help pull CAR away from its dependency on Russia, which has furnished soldiers and military aid to fight against rebels, and installed a Russian national, Valery Zakharov, as President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s national security adviser.

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