Members of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) have asked member countries to do more in the fight against human trafficking.
The Assembly which is sitting in Kampala, Uganda, unanimously adopted a motion moved by MP Dora Byamukama, (Uganda) urging for urgent action to prevent trafficking in persons.
This is not the first time the issue of human trafficking is debated. In December 2013, while in Nairobi, Kenya, the Assembly adopted a similar motion moved by Byamukama urging partner states to ratify the UN Trafficking in Persons (UN TIP) Protocol and enact legislation to address the crime.
It suggested that the Council of Ministers tables, every year, a status report on action taken to combat trafficking in persons, but nothing has been done.
On Thursday, the lawmakers supported the idea of enacting a regional law on human trafficking; hunting and prosecuting offenders; and pushing the Council to operationalise article 27 of the EAC Treaty.
It would expand jurisdiction of the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) to tackle cases of human trafficking.
MP Nancy Abisai (Kenya) stated that partner states had “fallen short of implementing our existing] laws to punish perpetrators.
“We have laws but some are archaic. We’ve also fallen short of protecting witnesses. Witnesses are kidnapped, threatened, and so on, to prevent them from testifying,” Abisai claimed.
Commending Rwanda for its efforts – including establishment of safe houses for witnesses – the Kenyan MP was equally forceful when calling for tough penalties against criminals.
Explaining how human trafficking is linked to corruption, Abisai noted that in 200 reported cases in her native Kenya, only 43 ‘succeeded’ in courts.
“We need to overhaul the system,” she said, highlighting the case of Kenyan girls going to Qatar and returning in coffins.
MP Patricia Hajabakiga lamented the fact that it was the third time a motion of that nature had been moved in the Assembly with no satisfactory results.
Data on social media, she said, indicates that 70% to 80% of the victims of human trafficking are women, especially young girls, sold into slavery and prostitution.
“We can’t talk about governance, democracy and other things when our children are being sold. How can we track tax evaders and not human traffickers yet they live in our neighborhood”? Hajabakiga wondered.
“For those of us in decision-making positions, our children are not trafficked – we should do more. Our security organs should all come together and stop this vice”.
Appeal for Summit’s attention
Present in the House was Uganda’s Minister for EAC Affairs, Shem Bageine, who was in the plenary in 2013 as Chair of the Council of Ministers when the previous motion was debated and passed. Hajabakiga appealed to him to bring the lawmakers concerns to the attention of the Council and added that “if it can find its way up to the Summit,” human trafficking would end.
Her compatriot, MP Martin Ngoga, noted that human trafficking was a transnational crime now ranking third after drugs and arms trafficking, and that the EAC is not only the source but destination route and home to “cells where victims are housed before being trafficked abroad.”
The former Prosecutor General in Rwanda told the Assembly that one serious problem when it comes to tackling the issue was “a form of stigma” such that that law enforcement organs often shy away from the harsh reality in society.
Pointing to 51 victims from Bangladesh intercepted in Rwanda, in 2009, on their way to Mozambique as “cheap labour,” and cases of Tanzania becoming a transit route for victims from Ethiopia to South Africa, Ngoga noted that individual states’ efforts will not succeed unless there was a resolute and harmonised regional mechanism.
“Our embassies should help. They should not only be preoccupied by the number of students there, but also people who end up there as victims of human trafficking,” Ngoga said.
Turn adversity into opportunity
The lawmakers recognised that poverty and unemployment were part of the problem and regional countries needed to address them.
While many lawmakers including Mukasa Mbidde, Odette Nyiramilimo, Agnes Ng’aru Mumbi and Abubakar Abdi Ogle focused on other angles of the problem, however, Dr. James Ndahiro thought that “every problem comes with an opportunity.”
The economist told the Assembly that wherever there is demand, there is always supply and, considering the case of the Philippines which “exports organised labour, and these people pay taxes back home,” the region could also look into organising its people to take advantage of the situation.
In addition, Dr. Ndahiro said, the EAC needs partnerships with the international community to fight the vice as regional efforts alone were not enough.
“We cannot fight human trafficking alone, or make it appear as if it is a problem affecting us alone,” he noted.
Speaking for the Council of Ministers, Bageine assured the lawmakers that the Council would consider the issues and report back to the House.
Though he did not say when they would report back, Bageine observed that the region should focus on an intensified sensitisation campaigns so that its people understand and avoid falling victims.
EAC partner states are signatory to the UN TIP Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children.