Uganda: Children in a Traffickers’ Paradise

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Alarmed that human traffickers have turned Uganda into a gangsters’ paradise, the Ugandan government has proposed the Trafficking in Persons Bill, 2007, poised to be enacted in June this year. The proposed bill deals harshly with culprits of child abuse and when passed, it will compel the guardians and relatives to reveal their relationship with the children in their charge.

Uganda has been reeling under the extreme poverty conditions and the impact of a debilitating 20-year Civil War. Human trafficking is just one of the crimes that countries are vulnerable to, post-conflict.

Problems resulting from the political marginalisation of northern Uganda led to the creation of the Lords Resistance Movement (LRM), a rebel self-proclaimed Christian guerrilla army. The LRA is accused of widespread human rights violations, including mutilation, torture, rape, the abduction of civilians, the use of child soldiers and a number of massacres. In fact, according to UNICEF, in 2006 alone 20,000 children were abducted.

Ruth Visick Evans, Director, Oasis Uganda, an NGO, says, “The problem of human trafficking is rampant in eastern and central regions where many children are taken to the border and smuggled easily into neighbouring Kenya for forced labour and prostitution.”

Victoria Nafula, a senior immigration officer in Kampala agrees and reveals that at least 300 children are shipped out everyday for as little as $130 per child.

“Uganda has no specific law on human trafficking though culprits may be charged under offenses on morality like rape, indecent assault,” explained Simeo Nsubuga, spokesman for the police. But this is set to change with the enforcement of the proposed bill.

As per the new bill, atrocities like child labour, sexual exploitation, military conscription, forced marriage, illicit adoption and human sacrifices will fall into the category of trafficking in persons.

According to ‘Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000: Trafficking in Persons Report 2007’, released by the US Department of State, “Uganda is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children, trafficked for forced labour and sex.” The report also goes on to state Indian, Chinese, and Sri Lankan workers are trafficked to the country for forced labour; while Indian women trafficked and forced into prostitution.

Reacting to the proposed bill, feminists caution that the bill should take into account unfair laws around prostitution. Such laws punish women without considering them as victims of trafficking, stated Rukiya Isanga, Minister of State for Gender affairs.

Deborah Ariyo, Director of Africa-Child Unite against Child Abuse, a UK-based organisation, thinks that the Ugandan situation is messy. “Sexual exploitation is one big reason for child trafficking in Uganda.” In fact, development agencies fear that nearly half of Uganda’s children are at risk of being trafficked. According to Uganda Bureau of Statistics, a government department, 60 per cent of the population is made up of youth between 15 to 24 years, definitely a vulnerable group.

Also, it is very easy for children to disappear without a trace in a country where a majority of the children are born outside hospitals and their births not registered.

While LRA activities largely throw light on child abductions, young women are also at risk – being lured to the United Arab Emirates, where they end up as sex slaves. Con men also come disguised as pastors and convince gullible audiences of how they can send their children to “paradise”.

In an effort to curb the menace, the Child Protection Unit of the Ugandan police, which is headquartered in the capital city, has trained 210 officers with ILO-IPEC (International Labour Organization’s International Programme on Elimination of Child Labour) assistance and is sensitising communities. (The ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) was created in 1992 with the goal of the progressive elimination of child labour, which was to be achieved through strengthening the capacity of countries to deal with the problem and promoting a worldwide movement to combat child labour. IPEC currently has operations in 88 countries and works with various government bodies and NGOs.) The unit also visits schools and has initiated radio programmes to raise awareness about human trafficking.

Checkpoints, on major roads leading to Kampala from north and east of the country, have been established to rescue women and children ferried out in vehicles.

Moses Okello, an academician at The Refugee Law Project, in partnership with the Faculty of Law, Makerere University, and the Human Rights Peace Centre (HURIPEC), believes country’s immigration system is wanting. “Most immigration officers are not skilled enough to understand or even detect how child trafficking rings operate,” he says, adding, “There is a local joke that it is difficult to pass illegal drugs through Ugandan immigration, but easy to pass humans.”

(Courtesy: Women’s Feature Service)

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.