Stranded in the Middle East: Uganda Must Do More to Prevent Trafficking


The Middle East has become a popular – and notorious – destination, particularly for East Africans. In the face of sharp increases in human trafficking, with young women being lured into exploitation by false promises of employment, Rosebell Kagumire calls on the Ugandan government to adopt an effective and victim-centred approach.

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Maidames is a series of images of South/Southeast Asian and African migrant workers in Lebanon that explores reality and fantasy in the relationship between the domestic worker and her female employer. The “maid” becomes the embodiment of her “madam’s” fantasy. Title: Hana Lielit (2017)

When I met Stella (not her real name), who is in her mid-twenties, she was still frail but out of danger. She had just arrived back from an eight-month ordeal in Oman, where a Kampala broker had sent her via an agent in Kenya. Stella’s mother had borrowed over USD300 to enable her to travel when she was promised a job as a receptionist in the United Arab Emirates. When she landed in Oman, her nightmare unfolded. She was not going to be a receptionist but was forced to work for up to 20 hours a day in a family household, as a cleaner and cook, and at the family’s shop. “I was stranded. I was waking up at 4am to work. After a few months, I started coughing blood. My employers had not paid me,” she recalled. She eventually escaped with the help of two other Ugandans who worked in the same neighbourhood. The agency that had sent her, however, was not about to spend any money to return her to Uganda. She was held in a room filled with other foreign workers who were also unable to work because of various illnesses. Luckily, one of them had a phone and she managed to reach a WhatsApp group of Ugandans living in Oman. Eventually, her ticket home was paid for by Make a Child Smile, a Ugandan NGO that has been instrumental in repatriating many women from the Middle East.

Stella’s story is emblematic of the growing human trafficking problem in Uganda, which is driven in large part by youth unemployment. According to the African Development Bank, 12 million young people entered Africa’s labour force in 2015, yet only 3.1 million jobs were created. [i] Uganda’s high youth-unemployment rate – which ranges between 60 and 83 percent, depending on the reporting standard – pushes its ambitious young men and women to go wherever there might be opportunities. This makes them easy targets for traffickers.

Lack of Comprehensive Data

Due to the illicit nature of human trafficking and limited local attention, good data is hard to come by for Uganda and the wider East African region. The most comprehensive information currently available comes from the US Department of State, [ii] which ranks Uganda as a country whose government does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. The victim statistics continue to rise.

The Uganda Police 2017 Annual Crime Report registered 177 cases of trafficking in persons, a 41.6 percent rise from the 125 cases recorded in 2016. [iii] Sixteen traffickers were convicted in 2016, compared to three in 2015. Over 300 cases have already been filed in 2018, but the police estimate that up to 50 girls are trafficked undetected every day. The increase in trafficking cases is well in line with the public outcry on social media platforms about Ugandan women stranded in various countries in the Middle East.

Human trafficking in Uganda is both a domestic and international phenomenon. Within its borders, Ugandan children as young as seven are forced to labour in agriculture, fishing, forestry, cattle-herding,mining, quarrying, brick-making, carpentry, steel-manufacturing, street-vending, bars, restaurants and domestic service. [iv] The US State Department report also shows that both girls and boys are exploited in prostitution; the main targets for domestic sex trafficking are girls and women between the ages of 13 and 24.

From an international perspective, Uganda serves as a source, transit and destination country. Young women are most vulnerable to transnational trafficking. Like Stella, they are often fraudulently recruited for employment and then exploited in forced labour or prostitution. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Turkey and Algeria are among the most common destinations.

Female Face of Trafficking

Trafficking cannot be understood without applying a gendered analysis of the push factors at home as well as the vulnerabilities and risks both in transit and at the destination. Girls and women are at particularly high risk for domestic work and sexual exploitation because they are commonly taken out of school to provide income for the family. School dropout rates continue to be higher for girls than boys. Between 1995 and 2015, the rate of primary school dropouts stood at 53.6 percent for girls, against a total average of 42.8 percent. [v]

Women between the ages of 15 and 29 are also highly disadvantaged in the labour market. The 2015 School to Work Transition Survey, conducted by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics and the International Labour Organisation, found that they faced higher unemployment rates, wage gaps, higher shares in vulnerable employment, and longer school-to-work transitions. [vi]

Given these low levels of education and poor working conditions, women and girls are easily enticed to leave Uganda in hopes of a better future. Over the past 15 years, they have altered the predominantly male face of migration.

Legal Framework Available

In 2010, Uganda ratified the 2003 Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. Known as the Maputo Protocol, it is still one of the most comprehensive legal instruments for the rights of African women.

Recognising the heinous nature of human trafficking, it requires African states to prevent and condemn trafficking in women, prosecute the perpetrators of such trafficking, and protect those women most at risk. However, 15 years later, in the context of increased inequality and lack of opportunities on the continent, human trafficking has become one of the most sophisticated kinds of organised crime.

Uganda is also a signatory to the 2003 United Nations Convention Against Organised Crime, which has been supplemented by the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. The Palermo Protocol defines trafficking in persons as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control of another person, for the purpose of exploitation”. It specifies that the use of any means of trafficking renders irrelevant any consent on the part of the victim.

Domestically, Uganda enacted the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act in 2009, which criminalises all forms of trafficking, including both sexual exploitation and forced labour, and sets out punishments ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment. The law also established the Ugandan National Counter Human Trafficking Task Force.

Lack of Prosecution

Although the government has used this Act to investigate, prosecute and convict perpetrators, labour-recruitment agencies that are involved in trafficking are rarely brought to book, allegedly because of corruption and their connections to people in high places.

“When you find out who is behind these agencies, then you give up. These are very powerful people in Uganda and the labour export market is a boom for them and the economy. Any attempts to question the means and how they make Ugandans vulnerable to trafficking and you will get warnings,” claims a fellow crime-reporter who wishes to remain anonymous. He followed a group of trafficked Rwandan girls after a police tip-off, but later both he and the police let the girls go because of intimidation by influential figures. Traffickers are known to have informants in Uganda’s security organisations who warn them about police operations. [vii]

Alex Ssembatya runs Make a Child Smile, the NGO that helped Stella return to Uganda. He argues that the prosecution of agencies involved in trafficking requires such a high threshold of evidence that is difficult to achieve without risking the safety of victims. “In many cases,” he says, “we gather evidence and we approach the authorities but they toss you around for more while the agencies implicated continue their businesses.”

There are other problems, too. Often the victims of trafficking know the people who led them into it. It is hard to resettle back home if traffickers remain untouched or are not prosecuted in a way that protects the victims. Some traffickers threaten to harm the victim’s family, preventing victims from reporting them in the first place.

Shifting the Problem

The East African Parliament, the legislative organ of the East African Community, passed an Anti-Trafficking Act in 2016, but coordination among participating governments remains a challenge. As measures are slowly implemented at some border posts, traffickers make use of more remote crossings of the porous borders, making the journey longer and more perilous for victims of trafficking.

Increased controls at Entebbe International Airport have also caused traffickers to find new routes. Like Stella, an increasing number of rescued Ugandan women report that they were trafficked out of the country through Kenya, with the assistance of agents both in Kampala and Nairobi. [viii] In July 2018, 20 Ugandan girls appeared in a Nairobi court after they were caught with forged passports at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and arrested in a probe of suspected human trafficking.

Also, border officers tend to focus on breaches of immigration law, rather than considering whether human trafficking has played a role. “The Uganda–Kenya border at Busia is one of the most used routes, but immigration officers lack clear guidelines on what to do with the victims, so they often detain them,” says Elizabeth Kemigisha, an advocate with the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers. “Victims are mostly treated as suspects under the Kenyan Citizenship and Immigration Act 2011 when intercepted.” As a result, victims are likely to fall back into the hands of the traffickers, after a fine is paid, while some remain stranded.

Lack of Victim Support

In a recent interview with the local Daily Monitor newspaper, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Labour, Mr Pius Bigirimana, argued that it is hard for the ministry to rescue victims because “they are not known”. He continued, “We only help those we know because the local companies that took them abroad are responsible for the client’s return in case of a problem.” This lack of support for victims of trafficking, because “they went illegally”, leaves thousands of Ugandans in limbo, often for months, until they manage to escape.

In the past, the Ugandan government put temporary bans on countries like Saudi Arabia in response to public protests about human rights violations. These, however, have lapsed, and no other mechanisms have been put in place to ensure the protection of Ugandan workers. Ugandan embassies in destination countries remain ill-equipped to assist trafficking victims.

Some reports indicate that Uganda’s response to victims of trafficking is so defective that police and other government employees have temporarily sheltered victims in their own homes upon return. “The government did not employ systematic procedures to assist victims, and availability of victim services was inconsistent,” as the US State Department diplomatically puts it.

The government’s efforts to provide victim protection do face financial constraints, but the heart of the problem is that authorities view the victims as criminals. Sex work is criminalised in Uganda, which creates a double layer of stigma and fear for victims to open up about their ordeals of sexual exploitation. Often they speak only of long hours of work and slave-like working conditions and are silent about sexual abuse.

Many traffickers use rape and sexual abuse to break the victim’s spirit, instil fear and ensure obedience. Women who fall pregnant along the trafficking routes are often forced into abortions. Yet, once rescued, the system also threatens to criminalise the victim and doesn’t offer sufficient rehabilitation services. Women and girls arrested during their journeys should not be treated as criminals and stripped of the right to tell their stories and get adequate help. Trafficking survivors urgently need better access to medical treatment, counselling, emergency shelter, resettlement support, and skills development.

Different Thinking Needed

Some good Samaritans and NGOs, like those mentioned above, have stepped i to fill the void created by the state’s inadequate response. Modern technology, which is often used by traffickers themselves to cover their tracks, plays an increasingly important role. Wetaase, for example, is building an open-data platform to track and reduce the incidence of human trafficking in East Africa. Still in the early stages of development, it provides information to citizens seeking to travel abroad and to those returning home from experiences of trafficking, as well as a toll-free hotline. Ugandans living abroad are increasingly using Facebook and WhatsApp as self-help tools to raise and respond to alarms.

Women’s Link Worldwide, an international human rights NGO, studies trafficking as a form of gender-based violence. Most of their research is based in Europe and Latin America, but women face similar challenges the world over. [ix] There is need for a deeper look into the lives of women in East Africa who are at risk, those who are caught up in trafficking networks, and the survivors. The violence suffered on these routes needs to be documented and averted. More research into the structural issues that push women into these situations, holistic forms of protection, and psycho-social support for victims are urgently needed.

[i] African Development Bank, Catalyzing Youth Opportunity Across Africa, March 2016. Available at:….

[ii] US Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, 2017. Available at:

[iii] Uganda Police, Annual Crime Report, 2017. Available at:….

[iv] US Department of State, 2017.

[v] The Observer, Over 5 million pupils drop out of primary school, 27 February 2017. Available at:….

[vi] International Labour Organisation, School to Work Transition Survey Uganda, January 2017. Available at:….

[vii] New Vision, 50 Girls, Women Trafficked Daily – Police, 30 July 2018. Available at:….

[viii] Daily Monitor, Ugandan women recount ordeal in Oman, 2 April 2018. Available at:….

[ix] Women’s Link Worldwide, Mothers in the trafficking networks robbed of their rights, 2018. Available at: https://….