• Analysis
  • October 29, 2015
  • 21 minutes
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The woman freeing 10 trafficked people a day in Uganda

After narrowly escaping a child trafficking ring, Agnes Igoye devoted her life to saving victims

Earlier this month, 500 FBI agents, state investigators and local police officers raided hotels, casinos and truck stops all over America. They were searching for children trafficked into prostitution, and they found them.

149 children were rescued from sexual slavery, 143 of them girls, the youngest of them twelve years old. Pimps were arrested in about the same number. But these numbers are nothing to the real scale of human trafficking. Since the FBI’s ‘Innocence Lost’ initiative began in 2003, the number of children recovered stands at nearly 5,000.

The highest number of child trafficking victims in this year’s raids turned out to be in Denver, Colorado, “home of the Denver Broncos”, an outdoorsy midwestern city that advertises its proximity to the Rocky Mountains and a museum commemorating a famous survivor of the Titanic. It was also recently ranked the city where the most Americans would want to live.

Denver seems a long way from the childhood of Ugandan anti-human-trafficking pioneer Agnes Igoye, who happened to be working with colleagues in Colorado when the raids took place. She grew up in a country terrorised by the child-snatching militants of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and had to flee into an internal refugee camp. But as she told Apolitical, ‘We are now in an interconnected world.’

As well as the USA, in the last three years alone people trafficked out of Uganda have been found in Canada, the UK, Denmark, Poland, Greece, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Kenya, South Sudan, India, Afghanistan, China, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Children and adults, women and men are exploited differently in different places – primarily for sex in Thailand and Malaysia, more often as unpaid nannies, housemaids and labourers in the Middle East.

As deputy coordinator of Uganda’s anti-trafficking task force, Igoye has worked with neighbouring countries like Kenya and Rwanda as well as with the United Nations and NGOs like the Clinton Global Initiative to put Uganda ahead of its neighbours. Her director, Moses Binoga, has just been given a ‘hero’ award by the US State Department in recognition of the task force’s trailblazing work in getting results against human trafficking.

Although Igoye emphasises that human trafficking is too diffuse for any one government to deal with alone, the programme she has implemented is, after only a few short years, stopping 20 potential trafficking victims every day at Uganda’s borders, without employing extra staff. Moreover, between 2010 and 2013, internal reports of human trafficking jumped 5,000%, from 16 incidents per year to more than 800.

It’s not a job, it’s people’s lives

Igoye overflows with stories and thoughts and projects and side-projects about trafficking, because for her it is not just a job. She herself narrowly avoided being abducted into child slavery by Joseph Kony’s LRA.

The militants, who have not been able to operate in Uganda since 2006 (but are still in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo), were looking for virgins to enslave, and captured Igoye’s cousin. The captured girl’s mother had dressed her up as a married woman, because she had heard that the LRA was less interested in them, but the LRA didn’t believe it. Her brother stepped forward and told the LRA that the girl was his wife, which they didn’t believe either.

AgnesIgoye

Agnes Igoye

The girl was dragged off and, though she later escaped, Igoye’s father realised the danger his six daughters were in. So they fled, hiding in the bush, eating what they could scavenge and ending up in an internal refugee camp.

Because her parents were teachers, Igoye received an education nonetheless, going on to study at Makerere University in Kampala, followed by stints at the universities of Minnesota, Oxford and Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Already disposed by these experiences to an interest in human trafficking, she became wedded to it by her experiences working in the immigration service. She encountered one woman in particular who was returning to Uganda from the Middle East with fraudulent documents.

This was before Uganda had anti-trafficking laws and the woman was arrested for the crime of travelling illegally. Igoye searched her ‘and that’s when she started opening up to me about what had happened to her. She was confined in somebody’s home and subjected to all these things. When she explained all the things that had happened to her, I made the decision not to punish her [for what was technically a crime].

‘She was just so glad to be home. She even said, whatever prison here will be better than the enslavement I’ve been going through in the Middle East.’

It is clear, though she does not say it explicitly, that Igoye regrets the victims who must have passed in front of her in the immigration service before she had been trained to identify them.

She has since become an expert. Recently, travelling home from a conference in Jordan, she visually identified a trafficking victim in the airport. After helping her, ‘I almost missed my flight. I started running like a madwoman through the airport. I was like, Oh my God, Agnes, has this trafficking thing gotten me to this!’

Agnes Igoye meets Hilary Clinton

The work has certainly become all-encompassing. Trafficking victims do not necessarily turn up between 9 and 5. Igoye finds herself at the police station at night, at weekends, using her leave time to give lectures. Hectic speaking engagements provide comparative relief from listening to survivors’ stories.

‘But my leave gets really busy. I cannot just go somewhere, just go on holiday. People keep asking me, you work all the time. I’m like, my work brings me satisfaction. I have the Huts for Peace programme [a completely unrelated scheme constructing housing for victims of gender violence] and when I go there on the weekend and I’m building huts and jumping on the soil and getting the grass and getting dirty, I’m happy. I don’t call that work.

‘It’s refreshing. I’m like somebody who has gone to a bar. If you’re getting excited with the beer, I’m getting excited with those issues. Seriously. People throw in my face that, You’re always working. But building things, that fresh air in the village, touching the soil, that smell of the soil when it’s rained … maybe I’m just too weird.’

She may be weird, but she is also very brave. When writing her masters, she went to northern Uganda at a time when the militants were mutilating people they caught. On another occasion, she and Moses Binoga, her director, were caught in a flash flood while rescuing child trafficking victims. She was swept off her feet and Binoga, already up to his chest, held her with one hand while holding the bank with his other. Igoye says, ‘It’s a long story.’

‘Awareness, awareness, awareness’

One of the trickiest things to tackle in human trafficking is that most victims enter it of their own volition. In the pursuit of opportunity, education and prosperity they entrust themselves to others who then use them for whatever they are making money out of.

Igoye explains the way it works: ‘They may tell you are going to work in a restaurant, or a grocery store, and then you get there and it’s not the grocery store or the salon. Before you know it, they’re telling you those clothes you’re wearing won’t work. So they want you, you know, to dress up, and the first experience in most times is rape.

‘I had one [woman] I was working with who was gang-raped by three men high on drugs, that was her first experience. And she was Muslim. Then she was coerced into prostitution and told she has to pay back the money [for her travel], they threatened to report her to the police, of course they removed her passport.’

The ignorance of what can await people on the other side of their travels means parents, friends and families will collude in trying to get their loved ones into the hands of traffickers, in the belief that they are helping them to a better life.

‘Every parent wants a good opportunity for their child. And if they think that maybe if you just go to the UK you’re going to get a job, because you’ve seen in the media that the UK looks so wonderful, and [the traffickers] have given them all these lies about the opportunities, they will give up their child.’

The naivete of some of the victims is staggering. ‘I’ve worked with a victim who went along with the traffickers’ lies [to get her out of the country] because all she wanted was to get in an aeroplane. She wanted to dress like [the singer] Rihanna. She wanted shoes like Rihanna wears. These are real things for young girls. She was maybe about 14. There’s some reason about girls at that age.’

So, says Igoye, the solution is ‘awareness, awareness, awareness’. In the form of information leaflets for would-be emigrants, television broadcasts, discussions with local leaders, religious leaders, the media and training courses for teachers, social workers and those in contact with vulnerable people through organisations like orphanages or sports clubs. They are taught to look for certain signs. For example, traffickers will often offer to pay for a would-be emigrant’s travel, on the basis that the money will be repaid when the emigrant has a job. This is a straightforward means of control. Another red flag is that young girls will be told to make themselves look older, ultimately for sex work, by changing their hairstyles and the way they dress.

A big giveaway is the traffickers’ desire for secrecy. ‘I don’t want to tell anyone not to travel,’ says Igoye. ‘But if they find an opportunity on the internet, I tell them to verify it. Go the ministry of labour, go to the recruitment agency, verify that opportunity. But people sometimes think if they tell somebody else, they will ruin their opportunity. They don’t want competition. So I tell them to verify. We tell them to be cautious who they’re friends with on Facebook. We have one survivor who was friends with a trafficker for a year. That’s how long it took before they brought in the opportunity of going abroad. So there was such trust.’

So as well as increasing reporting by parents or teachers worried someone might be being trafficked, the programme is also making it harder for traffickers to take in their victims in the first place. ‘They are having to use more resources, more tactics, to lure their victims, because the ground is not so conducive for them. We are making it more and more difficult for them to operate.’

Sometimes it’s as simple as asking the right question

The other crucial element of the awareness program is training the police, passport officials and border guards to spot victims of trafficking, even though those victims are trying to talk their way past them. Igoye, who has trained more than a thousand such officials, frames the mindset as a series of questions: are they travelling with children? with women aged 16-20? whose child is this? do they have a contract for where they’re going?

Igoye is reluctant to disclose more precisely what border guards are looking for, because the traffickers will be able to adapt. But, as with the girl she spotted in the airport in Jordan, there are types that can be spotted. And when she trains the border guards, ‘they are like, oh my God, I did not know that this really happens to people. Can you imagine, the first time you hear about trafficking, you thinking WHAAAT?!

Of the 20 people stopped on average each day on the border, perhaps half are rescued from trafficking, some merely haven’t got their documents in order and some, who are probably being trafficked, cannot be stopped, and leave anyway.

Igoye herself, late one night on the candle-lit border between Uganda and Kenya, caught a commander of Kony’s LRA. She has said: ‘This young man comes across the border. He had the right passport, the right name, he spoke the right language. But when he was getting out [of the car], you know, you get this sixth sense. You’re like, OK, there’s something not adding up in this guy. So, calling him back, he’s not maintaining eye contact, he has something that looks like a bullet wound and, you know, I’ve seen how they look. So I guess also going through certain experiences helps you identify certain people.

‘So me and my colleague, we went ahead and checked, only to realise, that’s the guy we’re looking for. This is a guy who abducted children, who killed people in northern Uganda and cooked their flesh and forced the villagers to eat it.’

A path to a better system

The term ‘trafficking’ is often associated in the public sphere with refugees and willing migration, so it is well to remember the original term for what we are talking about: slavery. And it is sobering to hear Igoye say that eradicating it is ‘like trying to free the world of theft’.

It will continue while it continues to be fuelled by ‘a high demand for cheap labour in the developed world’, ‘a high demand for women in the sex industry’ and by people’s striving to make a better life for themselves abroad. And the economics are powerful: Igoye emphasises that ‘a woman can sleep with 50 men a day; a gun or drugs you can sell only once.’

Nevertheless, progress is being made. People are being saved. Uganda is now working more closely together with neighbours like Kenya and South Sudan and recently even managed to rescue a girl when she was already out of the country, awaiting transit in Nairobi.

And for all her success in prevention, Igoye is opening a new front in the war against traffickers: prosecution. Last year in Uganda, and despite the setting of stringent sentences that can send traffickers to jail for decades, there were only four convictions.

One reason is that successful prosecutions depend on confident witnesses, and there is little money for rehabilitation, which is so much more costly than awareness campaigns. For example, Uganda does not have a fund to repatriate trafficked citizens who are rescued abroad, relying on ad hoc arrangements, nor can it provide medical care or shelter for those who manage to return.

So Igoye has embarked on building a rehabilitation centre to provide a safe and supportive environment for survivors, leveraging her government position to attract non-government funds. It is called the Dream Revival Centre. Says Igoye, ‘You know, a lot of the time people think victims of trafficking make beads or do sewing. That’s all good, but I ask them, what did you have before you were trafficked? What did you want to be? Because survivors are like us, they want to be presidents, they want to be managers, they want to be many things.’

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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