Human trafficking in the spotlight

South Africa ranks among the 10 countries in Africa where human trafficking is worst.

FILE: Civil society organisations protested against the scourge of human trafficking in September 2011. Picture: Giovanna Gerbi/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG - Human trafficking has returned to the spotlight after the Department of Home Affairs cited the prevention of child trafficking as the reason for new birth certificate and visa regulations which caused outrage by families wishing to travel and concerns from businesses within the tourism industry.

The new regulations require that visa applications be made in person and that unabridged birth certificates be produced.

South Africa ranks among the 10 countries in Africa where human trafficking is worst, with 100,000 people reportedly being trafficked in the country annually.

The first LexisNexis Human Trafficking Awareness Index released in Johannesburg last year painted a bleak picture of growing trafficking numbers and a shortage of specialised task teams to investigate the crimes.

Speaking on 702's Redi Thlabi show this morning, national coordinator with the Anti-Human Trafficking Desk at the Salvation Army, Major Margaret Stafford, explained some of the main challenges facing South Africa.

Stafford said there while was a serious need to fight human trafficking, we know very little about the trade.

"To a large extent, we get a bit apathetic. We are very good at reacting to crime instead of being proactive about these crimes and saying 'what are we going to do?' We are a destination country, a transit country and a source country. Slaves are taken to, from and through the country. South Africans are really bad at seeing these things and not reporting what we see."

She urged people be more aware of what's going on around them.

"The sex trade is a very strange trade because the buying and selling of sex is illegal, but the buying and selling of sex toys and porn is not illegal. So, when we police this industry, and you ask any police station how many prostitutes there are on the street, whether they are Nigerian, Chinese or Thai, children, whether it's increasing, they can't tell you. It's seen as a minor crime. Even though it is illegal, police stations in South Africa have no data on it.

"Human trafficking is something we know very little about. We can't tell you if prostitution is moving or growing. To a large extent we are working in a vacuum, and we're trying to catch up."

Asked if the new visa regulations and the requirement for unabridged birth certificates would help minimise the trafficking of children, she said it was a step in the right direction.

"In terms of abducting children out of the country, this regulation will stop that from happening. You have to get an unabridged birth certificate, and the visa has to be done with somebody seeing you face to face."

Speaking on how prevalent the trade was and how many children were taken across the border, she said there were no exact statistics.

"We don't know, we're actually just guessing. We talk about a 'dark number'. Many victims are convinced that their very survival depends on them keeping quiet, so they do. It's not well reported. This is highly organised crime."

She added that often traffickers pose as well established "massage companies" advertising for receptionists, to attract young unemployed people.

She said the red flag is that the offer requires no experience and no credentials, but in the long run young recruits end up a prostitute in a "high class" brothel.

The concept of Ukuthwala was also discussed. The traditional practice in some parts of South Africa was originally seen as a way to look after and protect young girls, however today, the very well accepted practice is often taken over by organised crime.

She referred to a case in Cape Town where a 13-year-old girl was married off to a man by her grandmother and her uncle, who then raped and abused her.

"When we talk about politicians and getting the political will to change things, we have to make people realise that every single person is precious, that children are important even though they can't vote.

"The police need to take prostitution seriously. Prostitutes say police often harass and rape them. It's also not the way to go to legalise prostitution, because who is going to police it then? Legalised crime?"