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Lack of shelter for victims slows down Kenya’s war against human trafficking

A special police unit that has been deployed to Isiolo in the wake of narcotics trafficking, terrorism and human trafficking. [Bruno Muntunga, Standard]

 When police stormed an erotic bar in Mombasa, *Binsa was happy that help had finally arrived.

What Binsa (not her real name) didn’t know was that she was saved from a human trafficking perpetrator’s ‘bondage’ into a police cell, a classic application of ‘out of the frying pan into the fire.

Binsa’s sigh of relief turned into such a horrifying nightmare, that more than a year later, memories of the treatment in a Kenyan police cell are fresh in her mind.  

Her experience is similar to hundreds of other victims rescued from traffickers only to find themselves bundled into police cars straight into police cells, subjecting them to more trauma and anguish.

Binsa and 11 other women had been trafficked from Nepal and India under the guise of giving them jobs but on arrival in Kenya were forced to become mujra dancers to entertain male patrons who pay for services, including forced sex.

They were arrested in April 2019 and taken to Nyali Police Station sparking outcry from NGOs such as the Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART), which sued the government for the gross violation of the victims’ rights.

Unfortunately, police cells are the immediate and available option for the police when they rescue victims of human trafficking and related crimes.

“In cases where a child is for example, defiled by the father, the police have had to keep such victims within the police station or in some instances in the cell. They cannot return them home. They have also been forced to keep women who have come in- in the cells,” Judy Gitau, Equality Now’s Regional Coordinator for Africa explains.

“We also have instances where nurses -who have received victims and treated them – have had to take them home. We have a partner in Kisumu, as recently as two weeks ago, who took a victim of rape to her own home, because where else do you take her? Do you turn her to the street or back home where she has been violated?”   

Though Kenya’s progress in responding to human trafficking is commendable, existing structural and procedural gaps have continued to obstruct the wheels of justice, leading to further violation of victims’ rights as well as creating loopholes for traffickers to walk scot-free.

As a signatory to international conventions against human trafficking, Kenya is also obliged under the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act 2010 to provide ‘appropriate shelter and other basic needs’ as well as ‘psychosocial support’.

However, the law has been criticized over staring gaps that further violate the victims’ rights and give perpetrators the leeway to escape justice.

The Act recommends 30 years imprisonment and an option of paying a fine of Sh30 million watering down the seriousness of the organised crime.

Awareness: Young At Haart group performs a play titled 'Stop Human Trafficking'. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

With Kenya identified as a source, transit and destination of sex trafficking and forced labour, the Global Trafficking in Persons Report has since 2015 ranked Kenya in the second tier – meaning that Kenya does ‘not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so’

The dearth of state-run victim support services contributes to the poor ranking.

This is because legal and structural loopholes have exposed victims leaving them to be treated like criminals despite the horror suffered in the hands of their traffickers.

Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji reckons that over-reliance on partner organisations to provide shelters for victims, “is a big impediment to the effective management of human trafficking, especially the protection of victims.”

He says: “We tend to rely more on civil society groups and other organizations like the United Nations. What we have seen in Kenya is a lot of people who are arrested are the victims themselves. The implication of taking the victims to a cell is traumatising – it is basically removing them from one hard situation to another”.

Such a trend, Haji warns, runs the risk of only disrupting a crime instead of going after the criminals and makes it ‘difficult for victims to cooperate’ reducing the chances of securing justice and dismantling local and international trafficking syndicates.

Without winning the trust of the victims, the DPP says, successful prosecution and conviction are difficult and made worse by lack of adequate international cooperation in tracing the origin of the syndicates with deep and far-reaching roots.

Lwakhakha town at the Kenya-Uganda border: Human traffickers usually avoid official border points but they are also known to compromise security officials. [Nathan Ochunge/Standard]

Jacqueline Njagi, a Senior Principal Prosecution Counsel, who heads the Sexual Gender-Based Violence Division at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions recalls an incident in 2019 when 13 children trafficked from Somalia were rescued in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate.

The State had to grapple with “where to shelter them” until the court directed them to be taken to the Nairobi Children’s Remand Centre – a place set aside for children awaiting judgment over various crimes like murder, theft and loitering.

“The case was taken to the children’s court, but before that, the question was where they would be kept. After talks with colleagues, I contacted a private shelter, where they were kept but we had to use our own resources to feed them for four days until the court committed them to the Nairobi children’s remand home,” Njagi recalls.

The incident is similar to the Mombasa one in which the 12 women were arrested, taken to a police cell before the state found shelter and subsequently repatriated them.

Whereas it is easier to find shelter for children compared to adults, Trace Kenya Executive Director, Paul Adhoch, says Kenya needs to speedily establish a solid legal framework for the provision of shelter for victims.   

In the absence of a legislative framework, Adhoch fears that private rescue centres – that are willing to take in victims – face procedural hurdles that lead to delays or even rejection of victims due to legal and safety implications.  

Such gaps have forced anti-human trafficking bodies and state organs to follow lengthy legal processes to have victims placed in shelters.

“For adult shelters, there is a shortage, no crisis of availability of shelters for children. But what we have are children rescue centers used temporarily to hold victims. We use court orders to temporarily put them in shelters,” Adhoch says.

CSOs that offer rescue centres on the other hand face capacity and resource challenges with a recent spike in the number of victims in need of shelter and safe houses.

Since the onset of Covid-19 in March 2020, Kenya has reported an increase in cases of violence against women, children and even men leading to a sharp rise in the number of victims in need of protection.

The writer interviews the Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is among the international organizations that have warned of an increase in the number of victims of human trafficking during the Covid-19 pandemic due to increased vulnerability.

“With Covid-19 restricting movement, diverting law enforcement resources, and reducing social and public services, human trafficking victims have even less chance of escape and finding help. As we work together to overcome the global pandemic, countries need to keep shelters and hotlines open, safeguard access to justice and prevent more vulnerable people from falling into the hands of organized crime,” says UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly.

Most of the partner organizations relied upon by the Government of Kenya to offer shelter were set up to serve a variety of victims including orphans, SGBV, street children and among other child offenders.

This, according to Njagi, runs the risk of not providing complete aftercare services, which include security, healthcare, psycho-social support, integration of victims and provision of other basics such as food and clothing.

“It is time the government thought of having a safe house because private ones offer only shelter which is not all rounded. You find they have one component and lack another. The government must have all components,” Njagi advises.

According to Adhoch, such an arrangement will allow a seamless judicial process, “once you rescue a victim, you know where to take them and you are sure they will not be criminalised.”

Whereas CSOs’ and NGOs’ role is to complement, anti-human trafficking crusaders believe it should be the government’s primary responsibility to provide shelter to secure victims, witnesses and evidence as one of the crucial interventions in the fight against human trafficking.

Therefore, Gitau is urging the national and county governments to consider aftercare shelters as a concurrent function supported in budgetary allocations.

“A lot of times we feel that the national government’s duty begins and ends with the investigation and prosecution but how do you ensure that your victim as the main complainant, in this case, is able to come to court, how do you ensure that he/she is not being further violated even if the case is not in court?”

Enhancing Africa’s Ability to Counter Transnational Crime (ENACT) Researcher, Mohamed Daghar further advises Kenya and its East African counterparts to develop frameworks to address causative factors that increase the vulnerability of victims, legal protection and operational hindsight and also the socio-economic challenges East Africans face that make them vulnerable to trafficking networks. “This translates to having a national employment policy in place.”

-Judie Kaberia is a fellow of the Resilience Fund of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime