Recently, human trafficking has experienced an increased amount of attention in South African media, but along with more awareness, misinformation has also increased. It is important to know exactly what human trafficking is, and above all, what the warning signs are and how one can stay safe.

With an estimated 25 million people living in “modern day slavery”, human trafficking generates US$150 billion every year, and, according to A21, an international anti-human trafficking organisation that operates in South Africa, it is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world. A21’s Katie Modrou also states that 2.8 out of every 1000 people are estimated to be victims of trafficking, and 54% of South Africans are vulnerable to human trafficking. Only 1% of victims are ever rescued, and there are many cases where victims are trafficked by someone they know, like a family member or spouse. Globally, the majority of victims are women and girls. The United States, an international frontrunner in fighting human trafficking, created the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which sets out minimum standards that other governments need to meet in order to prevent and fight trafficking. The US Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons moved South Africa to the Tier two watchlist in 2008, which means that SA does not comply with these minimum standards, but is working towards compliance.

Trafficking in persons (TIP) is defined by the United Nations (UN) as the “process through which individuals are placed or maintained in an exploitative situation for economic gain” for the purposes of “forced and exploitative labour […] sexual exploitation, and forced marriage”. This process involves recruitment, transportation, transfer, and harbouring or receipt of persons, and is done using threats of use of force, coercion, abduction or fraud. The forms of exploitation can include “sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”.

54% of South Africans are vulnerable to human trafficking.

TIP affects women, children, and men, and can happen by transferring people across borders, as well as domestically. However, trafficking can still happen without transferring or moving victims at all. Rather, it is the violation of a person’s freedoms that marks a situation as trafficking. Human trafficking is recognised as a human rights violation by the UN and, though there are many factors contributing to it, certain groups of people are more vulnerable to trafficking. Poverty, inequality, and other human rights violations are risk factors, because they contribute to “economic deprivation and social conditions that limit individual choice and make it easier for traffickers and exploiters to operate” according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Groups that lack power in a community are most vulnerable, such as children, refugees, migrants (especially illegal migrants), and women. Another important area of vulnerability is online, since traffickers often recruit victims using social media, and it is commonly used to target children.

The Polaris Project, an anti-human trafficking NGO, also explains that victims of human trafficking represent every gender, age and ethnicity, even though some forms of trafficking might affect different groups more. Additional factors that make people more vulnerable include “recent migration or relocation, substance use, mental health concerns, involvement with the child welfare system and being a runaway or homeless youth”, says the Polaris Project, since traffickers leverage victims’ vulnerabilities “in order to create dependency”.

Christi Maherry, a security expert with over twenty years of experience, emphasises that, although children and individuals living in a state of poverty are at most risk, the threat of human trafficking is ubiquitous. A parallel to the widespread and misunderstood nature of the threat can be drawn to the media’s bias in reporting almost exclusively on sex trafficking. While this is not a deliberate oversight, sex trafficking is arguably more visible, which makes it easier to generate data and build cases, especially when compared to victims trafficked into forced labor, whose organs are harvested and sold on the black market if they become too weak to continue working.

As such, all individuals must understand the prevalence of the threat and how to implement practices into their lives that will mitigate risks and serve to counter potential traffickers. Firstly, according to the Polaris Project, signs that an individual might be a victim of trafficking include the following: the individual appears malnourished; signs of physical injuries or abuse; avoiding eye contact and are subject to limited social interactions; appearing to follow a script or rehearsed phrases in social interactions; the individual does not have an ID, drivers license or birth certificate; working excessively long hours under abject conditions; and always being accompanied by someone else course of action is in line with the three P’s of counter-trafficking: Prevention, Protection, and Prosecution. Notifying the correct parties instead of intervening will prevent the individual from being moved as a result of traffickers fearing that authorities are suspicious. It ensures that the correct actions can be taken to remove the trafficked individuals and that they will receive the necessary protection from their traffickers. It also enables authorities and civil bodies to build a prosecutable, evidence-driven case against direct traffickers and the criminal syndicate or organisation that they potentially work for.

Human trafficking is recognised as a human rights violation by the UN

Secondly, there are steps that students in particular can take to reduce their own risk of falling prey to human trafficking. Henry-Dillon Peens, an intelligence analyst at the V3 Foundation, an anti-human trafficking initiative, says that, for students, there are multiple factors that can increase or decrease one’s risk levels. He explains that factors that relate specifically to students can be placed into two categories: how the individual reaches campus and returns home, and what the individual’s extra-curricular activities are. He advises that “awareness is key”, which means that “regardless of how the student gets to campus or where they might go afterwards, it is imperative that they are scanning their environment and taking note of what is going on around them”. In line with this, “it is better to leave phones and earphones in your pockets to allow for a better level of situational awareness”. Students who commute by foot or their own transport “must avoid following set routes with predetermined and predictable pick-up and drop-off points”, he explains. “Even if students are going to sport practice or a night on the strip, change up how you get there and places where you wait for friends or transport,” he adds. He also suggests intentionally using an incorrect name when approaching an Uber driver so that “if they do not correct you, then it is best not to climb into the car”.

A21 reports that 42.3% of victims were recruited by false job advertisements. The National Freedom Network, an SA based anti-human trafficking organisation, notes that job advertisements can be verified by the SA Human Trafficking Hotline mentioned earlier, to determine if the advertisement is a possible human trafficking operation. Another common recommendation is to never post one’s regular running route online, such as a screenshot from fitness apps like Strava.

“The best defense is a strong offense”, Peens maintains, adding that “maintaining a high level of situational awareness and assuming that you are already being watched, allows you to act proactively instead of reacting to uncontrollable situations”. Awareness and education are the most effective measures students can take to mitigate risks for themselves and those around them, and more information about human trafficking and how to prevent it is available at and

Illustration: Giovanna Janos and Leah Rees


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