This year’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons (TIP), marked annually on 30 July, was commemorated under the theme of 'Use and Abuse of Technology.’ First commemorated almost a decade ago, the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons is, per the adopted UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/68/192, meant to “raise awareness of the situation of victims of human trafficking and for the promotion and protection of their rights.”
But how do we raise awareness of the situation of TIP victims and survivors in spaces where identification and documentation of TIP cases remain a colossal challenge? To mention but one important challenge, Uganda has one of the largest refugee populations in the world—topmost in Africa—involving both mass influxes and protracted stays. Moreover, about 60% of these refugees are under 18, with the majority (92%) hosted in rural settlements alongside local communities within conditions of relative deprivation, recently aggravated by grave losses of livelihood and income following the COVID-19 outbreak. Against this contextual backdrop, it is no exaggeration to imagine such cohorts of refugees (male, female and gender-nonconforming, old and young, with visible and invisible disabilities, etc.) and their immediate host communities as constituting themselves fertile ground for TIP. These populations are not computed in the "more than 60 per cent of detected human trafficking victims over the last 15 years [being] women and girls, most of them trafficked for sexual exploitation” noted in the press release by the UNODC Executive Director issued on 30 July 2022.
The recently released US Trafficking in Persons Report (July 2021) has placed Uganda on Tier 2 from Tier 2 Watch List in the past two years. While not yet fully meeting the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking-in-persons, Uganda is making significant efforts. Uganda's efforts reportedly include investigating and prosecuting more trafficking crimes, convicting the most traffickers ever reported in a year, developing robust, standardised operating procedures for law enforcement and increasing training for investigators and prosecutors. Refugee Law Project (RLP) of the School of Law at Makerere University in partnership with the Irish Centre for Human Rights (ICHR) at the National University of Ireland – Galway has, in view of the past three-year research project under the title ‘Human Trafficking, Forced Migration and Gender Equality in Uganda’, contributed to these efforts in no less modest ways. Nonetheless, the challenges of harnessing technology – coupled with the one of countering abuse of technology – in a sophisticated fight against TIP, especially among vulnerable lives online, still looms large.
Digital technologies are increasingly being recognised as tools capable of enabling and impeding TIP. The use of internet-enabled technologies, including social media networks has seen an unprecedent uptake in recent times across so many divides – age, gender, class, legal status, time zones and geographies. Messaging apps like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook and other audio-visual digital channels like YouTube, Instagram, Google Meet and Zoom are becoming humans’ second-nature in broadcasting enormous bits of information and facilitating intense and interactive exchange. This recognition could not be more realised than following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forcibly migrated plenty of human interactions and transactions into virtual spaces. With the great shift to online platforms for humanitarian outreach and service delivery, the often syndicate crime of human trafficking also moved to cyberspace. The eagerness of many asylum seekers to get and keep online via social media – as an escape from the often constrained parameters of life in confined asylum spaces – provides a recipe for cyber criminality and cyber violence, as well as a situation replete with opportunity for tech-enabled TIP. As such, cybercriminals who include digital human traffickers can easily take advantage of vulnerable refugee lives online, not least due to the questionable ethics of how digital platforms are designed and run.
In a recently published study jointly undertaken by the RLP and the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) on social media and inclusion in humanitarian action, it was found that refugees in Uganda—both those in refugee settlements and those self-settled in urban areas—are eager to get and stay connected to the internet through social media platforms, regardless of the challenging context. So are the lives of refugees and their hosts in settings of asylum affected in dynamic ways as communications systems and networks continue to grow, and new social media applications are developed. Some have cherished hopes of social media potentially democratising the humanitarian industry in the field of forced migration. Others have also pointed out that online connectivity can exacerbate protection-related vulnerabilities of forced migrants, already suffering varying instances and degrees of trauma.
The need for establishing appropriate protection channels for beneficiaries (whether forced migrants or their no less vulnerable hosts) who become internet-enabled tech-savvy cannot be overstated, especially when considering the uptake of the systematic use of social media in humanitarian action. Arriving at such protection channels in combating T4TIP would require taking seriously what Oliver Lough urges humanitarians to consider, namely a shift from risk avoidance to risk mitigation as they take on more deliberate approaches to using social media in constantly engaging with their persons-of-concern within different information ecosystems. Doing so with a survivor-centred, trauma-informed, and gender-sensitive approach, bringing together the state (government agencies), the society (non-governmental and civil society entities) and the market (businesses and tech companies) in responsorial partnership, is moreover what may take us on a much more promising fight against T4TIP. As we commemorate this year’s World Day against Trafficking in Persons, re-centring the use and abuse of internet-enabled technologies in the combat against TIP, it is also important to remember that TIP remains a tight-knit networked crime undertaken by purposeful agents acting in a daring and sophisticated manner both online and offline. As such, an equally intentional and purposeful resource investment to curate and analytically oversee digital spaces – sorting the wheat from the chaff and deciphering the subtle from the sensational in the sea of information – is key in bringing down the TIP network
By David N. Tshimba
Senior Research Fellow, Refugee Law Project
with funding support from