Emergency support to survivors of human trafficking in Kenya during Covid-19


Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART) was formed in 2010 with a vision to see a world free from trafficking in persons. HAART decided to focus on the subject of human trafficking because, despite the fact that Kenya is one of the main hubs of trafficking in Africa, there were no organizations exclusively focusing on addressing the issue.

HAART uses the UN Four P’s Strategy of prevention, protection, prosecution and policy & partnership. Since its inception, HAART has reached more than 60,000 people through its outreach activities, providing direct assistance to 587 survivors of trafficking. This includes the survivors HAART housed in its shelter that was established in 2016, the first shelter exclusively for victims of trafficking in Kenya. In 2019 HAART had 52 legal cases, 5 of which led to the conviction of perpetrators and a petition against the government of Kenya seeking implementation of the Counter trafficking in Persons Act specifically section 15 and 18 on support and protection of victims of trafficking in persons and repatriation of victims to and from Kenya. The case is not over yet, but has already led to the funds being allocated for victims through the National Assistance Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking for the first time in Kenya.

HAART has a long history of building partnerships and working together with stakeholders at grassroots levels, national level and international level. HAART has built local grassroots networks in more than 10 counties in Kenya through our network of volunteers who mobilize for workshops and connect us to local leaders such as chiefs, religious leaders and CBOs.

Human trafficking

Kenya borders countries which are all classified as countries of origin for victims of trafficking in the Greater Horn of Africa. Efforts by the Kenyan government to provide victim assistance support systems and continuing efforts to address prevention, protection and prosecution have so far not been fully realized. Various studies have assessed the extent of human trafficking in Kenya and have classified the country as a source, transit and destination for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation. Kenya is considered one of the main hubs for human trafficking with women, men and children in Africa.

Human trafficking generally takes place in dangerous and degrading conditions and involves a range of human rights violations and abuses. Inherent in trafficking are such forms of severe exploitation as abduction, incarceration, rape, sexual enslavement, enforced prostitution, forced labor, removal of organs, physical beatings, starvation, and the deprivation of medical treatment. Victims of Trafficking (VOTs) are often dependent upon and intimidated by their traffickers, who frequently confiscate their identity documents and keep them confined and isolated, thus limiting their ability to seek assistance or protection from the authorities. Victims may fear arrest and prosecution for TIP related activities such as prostitution or association with armed groups, while victims who have been trafficked into another country fear arrest for illegal entry and possible deportation. Victims of sexual exploitation might also fear discrimination or punishment by their families and communities.

Covid-19 and other emergencies in Kenya

The first case was recorded in Kenya on 12th March 2020. The government response was swift with advice of suspension of public gathering immediately as well as including measures towards social distancing. A few days later the government was advising everyone who had the possibility to work from home. HAART took this advice and asked its staff to work from home almost immediately after organising the equipment needed for HAART’s staff to work from home. In addition to that the government imposed police curfew as well as locked some cities and towns and even some areas within cities (e.g.  Eastleigh in Nairobi) 

As of June 17th 2020 there are 4,044 confirmed cases of covid-19 in Kenya out of a  total of 124,474 tests. So far 107 people have died. The government is able to conduct around 2,500 tests per day which is far from adequate considering the population which according to the census in 2019 stand at just under 48 million people. However, the government has been increasing the capacity of testing and hopefully the number of tests that can be done a day will come up. Exactly how dire the situation will become in Kenya is difficult to estimate and at HAART we can essentially just do our part by working from home as much as possible and maintain good hygiene to do our part to not spread the virus. In the latest assessment by WHO, a total of 250 million people are expected to get infected in Africa with a death toll of around 190,000 people

Besides the pandemic, Kenya is also dealing with two other disasters. Firstly, there has been locust pest currently ongoing which is threatening the livelihoods of millions by the “most destructive migratory pest in the world”. The desert locusts have migrated to Eastern Africa from the Arabic peninsula. The locusts threaten food security with reports estimating “that over 25 million people will experience acute food insecurity in mid to late 2020 in Eastern Africa”. Secondly, Kenya has had a period of sustained rain which has caused floods that have destroyed roads, bridges and houses and so far taken the lives of 237 people as of May 13 2020. The floods have also led to displacement of a high number of people. HAART has conducted a study that link displacement in relation to natural disasters and climate change to human trafficking.

Finally, there have been reports that the lockdown and other measures to suppress the pandemic has had the unintended consequence of an increase in domestic violence and sexual abuse which has a well-documented link to human trafficking and other types of human rights abuses. One of the gravest violations of human rights is the practice of child marriage. Although illegal, child marriage is often used as a coping mechanism for families that face hunger and extreme poverty. 

Expected Impact of the emergencies

While it is still early to predict the long-term effects of the covid-19 pandemic on countries like Kenya as well as the other challenges that Kenya is faced with. There are already indications that the crisis could be devastating not only for victims of trafficking who are currently trapped or stranded, but also survivors who have managed to rebuild their lives are risking a shock to their livelihoods and finally the crisis offers new opportunities for human traffickers to exploit victims of human trafficking through existing and relatively new ways such as online sexual exploitation.

While these are to some extent speculation, there are estimates that anywhere from 150 million jobs to half of all jobs in Africa could be lost due to the economic impact of the covid-19 pandemic. The locusts furthermore threaten not only the food security but also the economy through failed harvests. Agriculture accounted for 26% of Kenya’s GDP in 2019 and could be hit hard depending on how well the measures to contain the locusts are through aerial pesticide spraying. The situation looks even worse in a tourism sector that normally accounts for 10% of the GDP. With borders and airports closed Kenya is likely to receive a small percentage of visitors in 2020. This obviously means loss of jobs and bankruptcy of many tourist companies 

Although there has been a relatively low number of infections and fatalities in Kenya as well as Africa as a whole, the number of infections is still rising. And while there are many young people and relatively few people with lifestyle-related health issues such as obesity which according to the WHO will lead to less fatalities for people as a direct result of covid-19. compared with the number of infected due to the youth of the continent as well, the report warned that “the associated rise in hospital admissions, care needs and “huge impact” on services such as immunisation and maternity, will overwhelm already stretched health services.”

As a result of the pandemic there has also been indications that girls and women are increasinly suffereing from gender based violence, sexual assault, violence and online sexual abuse. While people in Kenya and around the world are forced to remain at home, there is an increased risk of “domestic violence, intimate partner violence, child abuse, and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence.” In one research by HAART, it was highlighted that young women from poverty stricken backgrounds who are the main breadwinners for either their own children or siblings are vulnerable to particularly domestic servitude as well as sexual exploitation, in addition the children of the women become vulnerable once the mother is trafficked. A report by WeProtect highlights the risk that the pandemic will increase the risk for online sexual abuse for children. This situation is likely to worsen as the different effects of the pandemic takes hold.

Currently movement is restricted at a global level. There is not a proper overview at this time, but there are likely tens (and possibly hundreds) of thousands of Kenyan migrants stranded around the world and there are consistent reports from HAART’s partners that their situation is dire in many countries with Kenyan migrants. Although there are not yet many specific reports about Kenyan migrants, the reports from places like Bahrain, India, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia is that many migrants have lost their means of income and have been evicted and been forced to beg on the streets. It is still too early to say what will happen with the high number of Kenyan migrants in countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Dubai and many other countries. The Kenyan government organized a few flights from China and India to repatratriate stranded Kenyan citizens at their own cost. But there were enough flights to meet the demand and many migrants would have been unable to pay for the flight. It is also possible that we will start to see mass deportations of Kenyan migrants, something that has already started with Ethiopian migrants in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Whether as a result of displacement or migration, there is also likely going to be an increased movement of people looking to escape poverty, lack of food, or increased insecurity or simply looking for new opportunities due to lack of employment in the medium to long term. This types of movement generally has the effect of increasing vulnerablity to human trafficking. At the same time, it is unavoidable that people will look for new opportunities if they see no other way as was illustrated in poem the poem Home, by Warsan Shire:

“you have to understand,

no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land.

who would choose to spend days

and nights in the stomach of a truck

unless the miles travelled

meant something more than journey.”

Shocks to the economy, health emergencies, floods, lack of health services and displacement have a sad and unfortunate record of impacting the most vulnerable and making bad situations worse. Considering that victims of human trafficking are among the most vulnerable group in any community the economic impact from the covid-19 pandemic will likely be severe on recovery and rehabilitation of victims as well as make many more people vulnerable to becoming vulnerable to human traffickers.

What it means for victims of human trafficking

The pandemic has already cost tens of millions of jobs worldwide and everyone has been affected by the pandemic but as with most crises, the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized members of the society. Victims of human trafficking are consistently among this group and are often overlooked. The pandemic has had an impact on the victims who had already finished the support programs at HAART as well as victims that are currently in the process of healing. Further, it has made many more people vulnerable to trafficking whether such as day laborers, domestic workers, sex workers post-pandemic.

Most of the survivors of trafficking in our program depend on small businesses for their livelihood. However, due to the partial lock down in Kenya, their business has been greatly impacted because they cannot operate. There is a heavy burden on these survivors to provide for their families with businesses closed and their school going children being home due to the lock down. There is a risk of re-trafficking both during and after the Covid-19 pandemic as families are desperate looking for opportunities to avoid hunger and pay for education for children.

Challenges for HAART’s work

Under normal circumstances HAART identifies victims through grassroots awareness workshops in communities, referrals from stakeholders and social media. Once a victim is identified, the process of their case management begins and is managed by a dedicated caseworker assigned to his/her case. The cases are uploaded on an online system and monitored regularly until they are closed. However, currently HAART is not conducting awareness workshops and movement has been severely limited. However, HAART is working to gather information about the impact of the pandemic on victims of human trafficking. HAART is working with partners in Kenya and internationally to share information, support victims of trafficking and we are furthermore advocating for victims’ rights to protection even during one of the most significant challenges Kenya has faced since its independence which is what we are in the beginning of in our estimation.

It requires grounding and safety for victims to recover and heal from the trauma experienced and be rehabilitated, but in the current situation victims like many other vulnerable groups are in survival mode. As such, HAART is offering basic cash support for basic supplies such as food and soap for the victims to be able to get through the current crisis. HAART’s social workers follow-up with the victims on the phone and get an idea of their mental status and refer for therapy on phone with HAART’s therapist and then send a basic cash amount every month for the next months until the situation has gone back to normal. Currently, HAART is supporting more than 100 survivors of trafficking this way. Moreover, HAART can support victims with medical help, but HAART will also try to ensure that all the victims have been signed up for the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF). The victims can be Kenyans and non-Kenyans in Kenya as well as Kenyans who are stuck in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and India. If victims’ situation is desperate the amount could be increased to include the cost for temporary shelter (e.g. for domestic workers who have been kicked out of the house by their employers in a foreign country). One of the survivors that HAART had been supporting lost her life in one of the floods in Kenya in such situations HAART will try and support her children as they are indirect victims of her trafficking experience and they are also more vulnerable to human trafficking now that the one who was feeding and protecting them is gone.

Once life has gone back to normal many of the victims will need help to restart their lives.

What can you do?

HAART is going to need help to ensure that HAART’s victims can stay safe during the pandemic and meet their basic needs of food, rent and soap. To do this, HAART has set up a Covid-19 fund where we are collecting funds to provide support to survivors in a safe way that respects social distancing guidelines since it is using mobile money. It is not a big amount, the average is 50 dollars a month which is just about enough to survive for a family in Kenya under difficult circumstances. HAART is supporting more than 100 individual survivors of trafficking this way and it seems that more reach out to us every day. In some cases HAART can also help provide assistance for rent and medical costs but we also want to ensure that we can assist as many as possible and at the same time it can be difficult to verify stories due to restricted movement.

While it is tempting to hope for the best and assume that the combination of emergencies happening at the same time will pass and things will go back to normal, it is also important to look at the reality and prepare for the worst case scenario. WHO is estimating that just under one in four of the more than a billion people in Africa are expected to be infected within the first year of a pandemic that is expected to linger potentially for years. And even in the case that a vaccine is developed earlier than expected and the locusts have a smaller impact than expected, it will still take time for the economy to restart and global trade to resume as well as tourism and in the meantime survivors deserve to be supported to at least ensure that their basic needs are met. Afterwards we will have a conversation about how we can assist them with restarting their lives.

HAART is ready to support survivors of trafficking throughout the pandemic but it is not possible without support from individual and institutional donors. We are therefore requesting support to protect survivors of human trafficking to get them through these difficult times. 

Jakob Christensen

Programme Manager