Searching for Best Practices to Counter Human Trafficking in Africa: A Focus on Women and Children

Searching for Best Practices to Counter Human Trafficking in Africa: A Focus on Women and Children

Searching for Best Practices to Counter Human Trafficking in Africa: A Focus on Women and Children


This report contributes to the ongoing discussions on the concept of Best Practices (BP) as applied in the campaign against human trafficking, with particular emphasis on women and children in Africa. Rather than providing exact answers to the questions of what constitutes ‘best’ and how that can be assessed and identified in the campaign against human trafficking, the report offers some analytical tools that may be helpful to scrutinise the use of the concept.  The wide range of policy issues underlying the problem and the complexity of coordinating action over diverse areas (such as migration management, crime control, labour standards, poverty reduction and particular needs of communities at risk) oblige analysts and proponents of BP to clarify their perspectives and potential conflicting goals in anti-trafficking policy. As any other complex phenomenon, human trafficking may be accessible to engaged actors through a variety of lenses. Important as it is, existing knowledge about human trafficking remains fragmented. Discerning the fragments and placing them in an interconnected whole is a challenge for international cooperation in the attempts to ensure the human rights protection of trafficked persons and their families. To this effect, the report uses Peter Haas’ concept of ‘epistemic community’ defined as a network or group of knowledge-based specialists with an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge in the domain of their expertise. Members of such a community hold a common set of beliefs on problem causation, validation of means of intervention and evaluation, as well as a common policy endeavour. The report identifies key actors, including international organisations and bilateral agencies engaged in the struggle against human trafficking, and discusses their roles as channels of ideas and practices. It traces the main areas of relevant expertise – human rights protection, migration and crime control – and shows how beliefs about causative aspects as well as valid intervention are translated into action on sites. The report then presents the findings obtained from ten organisations in Africa engaged in the campaign against the trafficking of women and children who shared their experiences on BP through the questionnaire method. Their own definitions of BP are highlighted and discussed in conjunction with their identification of strength and weakness. The main point at issue arisen from our findings is the impossibility of dislodging a BP from the ideological and political framing of human trafficking as a societal problem. Epistemic communities tend to be self-maintaining and to produce practices that reflect the values they hold.  At times these practices can be distant from what trafficked persons consider as their experience of human rights abuse. Given that the violations of rights are context-bound, more could be done by institutions to promote egalitarian practices in knowledge-building and sharing. Dialogues on different findings, interpretation and evaluation of practices may help to reduce the risks of dependency on a particular standpoint adopted by a given knowledge-network or group of specialists. Analysts and practitioners can contribute to a reflexive interpretation of the reality of human trafficking and to context-sensitive intervention if they can channel the narratives as well as insights of trafficked persons as ‘knowing subjects’ into scholarly knowledge and the policy field.


An age-old practice found in nearly all human societies,1 the trade in human beings has become widespread and complex, with an increasing order of magnitude since the end of the Cold War.   Now officially coined as human trafficking, this trade has become transnational and affects every continent on the globe. Global connectivity
has produced diversified patterns of transnational mobility through networks that operate at different degrees of organisation and complexity.  This makes the links between migration, trafficking and smuggling very context-bound and poses a considerable challenge to scholarly analysis. Although addressing human trafficking has become a political priority for many governments, many aspects of the phenomenon remain poorly understood. Available information about the magnitude of the problem is limited.  Laczko and Gramegna
(2003) note the growing consensus on the existing difficulty in measuring and
monitoring trafficking given the wide range of actions and outcomes covered by the term (including recruitment, transportation, harbouring, transfer and receipt).2  In
general, the existing body of knowledge about human trafficking serves to raise public
consciousness about the issue, but remains insufficient to lend support to a more
comprehensive action programme for addressing different dimensions of the problem.
The struggle against human trafficking requires a different approach from that of
trafficked goods – such as drugs and small arms – despite the similar condition of
illicitness.  As in the case of the trafficking of goods, the trafficking of human beings
involves a number of key aspects, such as: certain degrees of weakness in the state

apparatus of the countries which send, serve as transit, and receive; large tax-free
profits; the use of violence and threat to deter denouncement and prosecution.
However, unlike illicit goods, human trafficking involves a process of exploitation –
from debt dependency to enslavement – to ensure continued income from the same trafficked persons.3  Traffickers objectify persons under their control, place them to
work without payment, subject them to repeated sale, and may murder them or force
them to take deadly options to destroy evidence (Truong, 2003a).  Governments and
civil society – seeking to free trafficked persons from enslavement or servitude and to
prosecute traffickers – must deal with human beings placed in a wide range of difficult
situations which may transform their perception and manipulate their coping and
surviving in ways that may enhance rather than reduce dependency.
Current policy for counteracting human trafficking falls into three categories: (a)
prevention and deterrence, (b) law enforcement and prosecution of traffickers, (c) protection of trafficked persons, ‘rehabilitation’4 and assistance in social reintegration.
However, these official actions unfortunately face many problems of circumvention
such as fragmented evidence, judicial disharmony within and between national
legislative systems, weak social institutions with logistic problems and inadequate
professional capability to lend support to trafficked persons.  Such circumvention
indirectly serves to boost the impunity of perpetrators and maintain the opportunity for
A proliferation of funds and resources now exists for raising public awareness,
legal reforms and developing new practices of human rights protection. The diverse
manifestation of forms of human trafficking – particularly those with transnational links
– tends to defy the authority of science in migration and affiliated analytical tools
(Castles and Miller, 1998).  Where theory is in the making rather than ready made,
engaged organisations tend to turn to social learning to develop their practices.  Social

learning emphasises the merit of hands-on experiments or direct trial-and-error as well
as the power of concrete examples of intervention in creating lasting effects on knowing
what constitute success or failure.  The preference for immediate action shaped by
learning from actions taken in practice is driven by the concern for efficient use of time,
money, and other resources.  The documentation of practices and projects that have
been perceived to deliver the desired outcome may be regarded as part of the process of
inductive codification of new norms of intervention.
Considering the complexity of the problem and the context of our research – being without

the benefit of field research and observation of practices in action,5  it is
both impossible and unethical to make pronouncements on the impact of a particular
practice, let alone to name any of them as ‘best practices’.  Our emphasis is on an
understanding of the cognitive functioning of particular epistemic communities engaged
in the struggle against human trafficking in order to appreciate the specific choices
made (for action) in their context. The challenge in the search for technical and
analytical tools to make the concept of ‘best practice’ useful lies in the unpacking of the
social and political world in which it is embedded, and in so doing to contribute to a
resolution of  tension and create bridges between different epistemic communities.
Given the current status of knowledge on human trafficking and the risk of
erroneous claims, our aim is to direct the reader towards the need for public dialogues
on diversity to be undertaken in the spirit of epistemic egalitarianism.  Epistemic
egalitarianism, we suggest, begins with the acknowledgement that each perspective has
its own merits.  Building and sharing a body of knowledge should be a democratic
endeavour, continually generated and regenerated through what Sandra Harding calls
‘fruitful coalitions and respectful dialogues’ between different perspectives (2000: 257).
In the field of human trafficking, epistemic egalitarianism should foster such dialogues
between policy-making bodies, engaged grass-roots organisations and scholars to
address the congruence of forces behind the phenomenon in the interest of human rights
protection.  This means including also ‘people living with human trafficking’ (as
trafficked persons, returnees and their families) to take part as ‘knowing subjects’ on

how best to protect their rights.6  Such dialogues can be built on experiences of
inclusion already taking place in several countries, notably the participation by returnees

in the formulation of intervention at micro level.7  Their narratives and insights should
be channelled into the policy field and scholarly interpretative works.  This may help to
foster a shared understanding of the problem and a collective support that does not take
for granted some standardised definition of human trafficking, but is capable of
responding to diversity of needs and ‘situated’ rights of trafficked persons and their

1.1  A Focus on Women and Children

Social structures mediate human mobility.  Inevitably, the experience of being
trafficked or mobile through exploitative means varies according to the persons’ social
position and identity as regards class, gender, age, religious affinity and citizenship.
Known patterns of illicit human mobility suggest that women and children are most
vulnerable to human trafficking, although a large number of trafficked men and boys
have been found.  From the perspective of gender and age, Radhika Coomaraswamy –
the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women – notes the

“… the lack of rights afforded to women serves as the primary causative factor at the root of both women’s migration and trafficking in women.  The failure of existing economic, political and social structures to provide equal and just opportunities for women to work has contributed to the feminisation of poverty, which in turn has led to the feminisation of migration, as women leave their homes in search of viable economic options.  Further, political instability, militarism, civil unrest, internal armed conflict and natural disasters also exacerbate women’s vulnerabilities and may result in an increase in trafficking”.8

She adds that the phenomenon of trafficking in children needs child-specific
remedies which take into account gender-specific features.  Dottridge (2004:19)
endorses this view and further proposes that child-focused action should try to minimise
their specific vulnerabilities, enhance their capacity to assess risk and articulate worries,
and pay attention to gender and age differentials.
Sub-articles (c)9 and (d)10 under Article 3 in the United Nations Protocol to
Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children,
supplementing the Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (also abbreviated
as the Trafficking Protocol) gives specific attention to the trafficking of children.  The
article places special onus on parents not to abuse their position of authority or the
vulnerability of children in their care.

1.2  The Research Process, Data Collection and Analysis

Our interest in this research project stems from our long-standing practical and
theoretical engagement with issues on the margins that have become a new epicentre of a global social crisis in the last decade.11  Aware of the complexity of issues underlying
the constellation of practices framed as human trafficking, we see the merit in bringing
to the fore the significance of appreciating reality from the standpoint of those whose
daily lives are most affected by policy choices. We view policy as a deployment of
different fields of social energy guided by a variety of knowledge frameworks and
interests, capable of cooperation, competition and conflict.  Those unrepresented by the
guiding frameworks tend to carry the social burdens of errors in decision-making
without having an avenue for criticising the beliefs upheld by policy-makers; nor for
exacting a response to their requests for change.
Extant avenues to assert alternative beliefs such as the World Bank’s ‘Voices of
the Poor’ or the World Social Forum are inaccessible to those stranded in different
frameworks of legislation without effective citizenship, as are trafficked persons.  We
therefore see our task as contributing to an avenue through which the rights and dignity
of trafficked persons can be addressed from the standpoint of their location, so as to
give socially grounded meanings to human rights protection as a policy objective.  We
concur with Kardam (2004) that emerging global regimes of rights and social equality
need new methods of scrutiny at the point of application of standards and principles.
We regard the transformation of policy practices – from the control and discipline of the
social body to a process of dignity enhancement for those stripped of their rights – as a
key objective in this scrutiny.
Lack of resource deprives us of an opportunity to observe first-hand the
application of best practices in the anti-human trafficking campaign in Africa.  We rely
on the diversity of routes of knowledge on the Internet and databases of various
organisations.  Aware of the fact that the diffusion of information also means the spread
of misinformation, we supplement the knowledge provided on websites with a thorough
review of publications and reports of meetings that offer additional insights on
organisations in Africa engaged in the anti-human trafficking campaign.  Our research
focus has evolved through the data-gathering process.  Our attempt to create a
framework for the analysis of best practices was vexed with major questions regarding
norms and values, leading to the decision to provide an analytical lens through a social
learning approach.
Analysis of the political, legal, social and cultural aspects of trafficking of
women and children in Africa in Chapter 2 reveals tensions between international
regulatory frameworks and the diversity of practices of human mobility. In Chapter 3
we introduce Haas’ concept of epistemic community to trace how a BP flows directly
from a particular framework of knowledge, values and norms a particular community
adopts.  A number of selected practices in Africa by participating organisations in this
research are illustrated in Chapter 4. The chapter discusses their profiles, strengths and
weaknesses, as well as the way they understand causation in trafficking and the
replicability of their practices.  Their own narratives serve to accentuate the key areas
requiring further reflection.  We note that communities of practitioners in Africa share
an awareness about the significance of bridging and synchronizing the three levels of
intervention (prevention, prosecution and protection), but this awareness at times
remains detached from actual action owing to the lack of resources and institutional
capabilities.  Chapter 5 concludes with a discussion on the use of the concept of BP in

the policy field of human trafficking for the future.  Rather than treating this as a
separate entity, our evolving understanding has shaped our belief that such practice may
best be treated as part of a broader process of transformation of a web of social
relationships.  Depending on the context, some relations are stronger than others in
causing human trafficking.  BP cannot be adopted as a ‘one-size-fit-all’ instrument, but
requires context-specific knowledge.  Society must be able to ensure a minimal level of
security for individuals, families and communities to resist human trafficking without
fear and anxiety about the consequences of their choices, be they socio-economic,
cultural or political.  The general enhancement of their capabilities and entitlements and
an increasing responsiveness among institutions can contribute to confidence-building
among communities at risk.  Successful community participation in prevention
activities, cooperation in the prosecution of perpetrators, recovery as well as social re
integration of returnees depend on the trust generated between all concerned.