Human trafficking has become a significant problem in Uganda. A 2020 government report estimates that traffickers are currently exploiting between 7,000 to 12,000 children.
It also reveals that human trafficking in Uganda primarily takes the form of forced physical labour and sexual exploitation.
One specific case went viral on social media recently. Yunusu Bakaki aka Kabbu, a 44-year-old Ugandan, openly admitted to a BBC reporter that he had been trafficking children from Uganda to overseas for over 20 years.
He was subsequently arrested at the Elegu Township in Amuru District. This raises the question of why this man was able to operate undetected for two decades.
The Uganda Police Force need to explain why it took them 20 years to arrest the suspect.
What is human trafficking?
First, let us take a look at the United Nations’ definition of trafficking.
“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 a 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.”
This definition suggests that human trafficking doesn’t necessarily require moving a person from one place to another in the way we think of weapons and drugs being trafficked.
It is not the same as people smuggling. Nor is it the same as modern slavery, although there is a broad crossover in definitions.
The crucial point of trafficking is the abuse of power to exploit another human being. It thrives in conditions of poverty, economic and gender inequality, corruption and instability.
This is a crime that requires systemic solutions.
A Police officer parading a woman suspected of trafficking children from Irriri trading centre in Napak district years ago. Child trafficking is a rampant vice in the country.
Child trafficking and modern slavery
As with the crime of sexual abuse, accurately estimating the true scale of child trafficking is complicated.
There is the hidden nature of these crimes, differences in policing and reporting between nations and little uniformity in how statistics are compiled.
Traffickers approach families living in poverty or socially and economically vulnerable girls, such as runaways, offering false promises of affection, work and a better life.
Instead, the girls find themselves being pressured or coerced into sex work.
Child sexual abuse and child trafficking are both serious problems in Uganda.
We should all be concerned about them. However, they cannot be divorced from the broader conditions that allow many more hundreds of children and adults to be trafficked and exploited as modern slaves.
This is a situation that requires sophisticated, holistic and broad-based legal and policy responses. The problems will not be tackled by misunderstanding their reality and complexity.
Nor can we afford to indulge in false narratives that divert attention from the real issues.
The Uganda government should work on preventative measures. A fundamental strategy to prevent child trafficking in Uganda is to keep children in school, protecting their right to education and a safe environment.
Civil society and national and international non-governmental organisations should be prioritising getting children back into school as quickly as possible.
More than that, it is essential that child trafficking is not treated as a symptom of natural disasters. It must be recognised as a scourge that requires co-ordinated international action.
Advocacy and awareness should be integrated across all programmes that work with vulnerable children and their families and communities.
In this way, agencies will be prepared to respond quickly and effectively. Until the measures are put in place, Uganda will continue having prevalent modern slavery.
The fight against child trafficking must continue.