Two women look on to the site where their homes used to be after the mudslide in Regent, Freetown, in August 2017 [Olivia Acland/Al Jazeera]
Sierra Leone’s poorest communities have long been prey to human traffickers. Climate change is making things worse.
Freetown, Sierra Leone – Zainab – last name withheld – sits in a dimly lit office in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown, plugs a number into her phone, and inhales sharply. A man picks up after two rings.
“I hear you are offering jobs in Lebanon,” the 29-year-old Sierra Leonean social worker tells him. “Life is so hard here, I want to get out. Can you help?”
The man gives her an address in Waterloo, a densely populated town 32km (20 miles) south of Freetown, and tells her to bring 3 million Leones ($150) as an initial downpayment. She hangs up and dials a contact at the Transnational Organised Crime Unit, a police division trained by the US embassy to catch human traffickers.
“It can be difficult to reach the perpetrator,” says Emmanuel Cole, head of the unit. “Sometimes we lure them to us by making them believe someone is interested in their programme.”
It is not the first time that Zainab has helped to set up an undercover sting. Four years ago she was trafficked to Oman. Since escaping a family home where she was forced to work for free and was sexually assaulted, she has made it her mission to help others who might also be tricked into going abroad.
“I try not to be afraid,” she says. “I know I am doing the right thing.”
A worsening problem
Human trafficking is classed as using force, coercion or fraud to send someone to a new destination, to profit from them. While official data is scant, experts say the problem is rife in Sierra Leone.
With youth unemployment at nearly 60 percent and the majority of the population surviving on less than $3 a day, there are thousands of people for traffickers to prey on, who long for better opportunities overseas. They often target women, touting well-paid jobs in the Middle East.
“You are sold a lifestyle,” says Vani Saraswathi of Migrant-rights.org, a Gulf-based advocacy group.
The agents offer jobs as nannies, hairdressers, maids or shop assistants in countries including Lebanon, Oman, Dubai, Kuwait and Turkey. But when their clients arrive in the destination country, their passports are often seized and they are forced into unpaid labour in people’s houses. Many young women report being sexually abused.
“They said I was a slave and didn’t need to be paid,” says one woman who went to Oman to work as a maid, “when we were alone in the house, the man would have sex with me, he held a knife to my throat and said he’d cut me if I screamed”.
Those monitoring the problem say it has worsened in the last three years. “There has been an increase,” says Christos Christodoulides, head of the UN Migration Agency in Sierra Leone. “The vulnerability has increased too.”
While some victims of human trafficking manage to escape, many stay locked in gruesome situations for years. Ninety-nine percent of the 469 Sierra Leonean domestic workers in Oman, interviewed in the last two years by the non-profit Do Bold, said they had been trafficked. A third of them reported being sexually abused.
Climate change is exacerbating the problem. Sierra Leone is ranked in the top 10 percent of countries vulnerable to climate change despite having contributed just 0.003 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions since 1950.