The sound of a phone ringing reverberates in the silence of a quiet Nairobi office space. On the other end of the line is a person in distress, reaching out for help: they say they are a survivor of human trafficking.
The operator begins to ask them questions, attempting to build an understanding of the situation. It is a delicate process, but the operator is experienced and soon gathers the necessary information, before ending the conversation with a promise to visit soon.
This scenario, although emotionally distressing, is a regular occurrence at HAART Kenya, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides specialized services for survivors of trafficking.
The United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking (UNVTF), operated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), provides grants to NGOs that are providing “immediate and essential direct assistance for vulnerable victims of trafficking in persons,” including HAART.
This essential funding is supporting HAART’s activities, including the provision of food, shelter, rental support, medical care and more. In addition, the funding is being used to increase avenues for the prosecution of traffickers, in order for survivors to have a recourse to justice.
Within days of the call, Kenneth, a member of HAART’s protection team, sets off in a colourful matatu to fulfil his promise. The long work hours and emotional burdens common to case workers give the 27-year-old an air of maturity beyond his years as he patiently waits for the bus to depart.
“After the initial discussion, we as case workers must go for a home visit to determine if the caller is indeed a survivor of trafficking,” Kenneth says. “If we find that the person is a survivor, we immediately begin to create a needs assessment for them.”
UNODC defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud, deception and other means, with the purpose of exploitation.” It is a scarcely understood crime, yet it extends to all corners of the world.
After roughly an hour, Kenneth recognizes his bus stop and quickly leaps out onto the bustling streets. Amid dust and speeding vehicles, he approaches a motorcycle taxi driver to haggle his way through the last leg of the journey to a cramped, dark room in a rural area outside of the city.
At the woman’s home, a long conversation ensues between the two. Soon, Kenneth determines that she qualifies as a survivor after hearing her gruelling experience of forced labour in the Middle East.
The experienced case worker promptly begins to explain the next steps, starting with a medical screening. “Now that we know she is a survivor, we will be able to provide her with the support she needs,” he says.
At HAART, every survivor is offered free medical testing, psychological counselling, and health insurance. These are considered essential steps in the healing process.
However, Mercy Otieno, HAART’s Head of Protection, says that survivors also need help to get back on their feet financially as part of their recovery journey: “The vast majority of survivors we work with receive economic empowerment support”. Lack of livelihoods and financial dependency can make individuals more vulnerable to exploitation by criminal networks.
This is because the exploitative nature of trafficking leaves many survivors in situations of financial crisis, particularly as they free themselves from their abusers and try to build a new life.
Sarah Mwangi* knows intimately the pain of a survivor’s journey.
In Kenya, there exists a vast network of employment agencies that match individuals with jobs abroad, however, many realize that the job offer they had agreed to was not what was originally promised. Some, like Sarah, wind up in exploitative situations.
As a single parent with an ailing mother at home, she courageously travelled abroad in search of work on three separate occasions.
But after facing physical, mental and sexual abuse, she returned to Kenya for good, albeit financially ruined and deeply traumatized. A few months later, she reached out to HAART through their help line, and there began her journey of healing.
“The therapy that I received through HAART has helped me a lot. I can now talk about what I experienced without feeling shame,” says Sarah. “Sometimes when I have time, I even go to schools and talk to the kids [about the dangers of trafficking]”.
Following therapy, the 32-year-old began a HAART sponsored business training with the dream of creating a chicken farm: “I always loved the idea of farming, so when HAART asked me what business I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to rear chickens”.
Today, Sarah lives with her mother and son and operates a successful chicken rearing business that provides her family with an income. In her free time, she is also a HAART Survivor Advocate, raising awareness among communities on the existence and dangers of trafficking.
For Mercy and her team, it is seeing people such as Sarah piecing their lives back together that keeps them going through the hardship of their work. “At first, when I began with HAART, I started losing hope in humanity when I heard the experiences of survivors,” she says, but she soon found hope in the change the organization was creating.
With the dedication and care of a vast network of staff and volunteers, HAART has provided life changing assistance to over 1,000 survivors of trafficking.
Such assistance is becoming more and more necessary - at a time when it is increasingly necessary.In its Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2022, UNODC noted that there has been a 43 per cent increase in child trafficking in Sub-Saharan Africa since the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, UNODC continues to support NGOs across the world in an effort to bring justice to survivors.
*Sarah’s name has been changed to protect her identity.