In Sierra Leone, climate change worsens trafficking of poor people | Human trafficking

Freetown, Sierra Leone – Zainab – whose last name has been withheld – sits in a dimly lit office in Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital, plugs a number into her phone and inhales loudly. A man picks up after two rings.

“I heard you were offering jobs in Lebanon,” the 29-year-old Sierra Leonean social worker told him. “Life is so hard here, I want to get out. Can you help me ?

The man gave him an address in Waterloo, a densely populated city 32 km south of Freetown, and told him to bring 3 million Leones ($150) as an initial deposit. She hangs up and calls a contact at the Transnational Organized Crime Unit, a police division trained by the U.S. Embassy to arrest human traffickers.

“It can be difficult to reach the attacker,” Emmanuel Cole, head of the unit, told local media. “Sometimes we lure them to us by making them believe that someone is interested in their program. »

This is not the first time that Zainab has participated in setting up an undercover operation. Four years ago, she was trafficked to Oman. Since fleeing home where she was forced to work for free and being sexually assaulted, she has made it her mission to help others who may also have to go abroad.

“I try not to be afraid,” she said. “I know I’m doing the right thing.”

Freetown and the impact of climate change
Freetown, built on a peninsula, is highly vulnerable to flooding which has pushed more people to seek a better life abroad (Olivia Acland/Al Jazeera)

A problem that gets worse

Human trafficking is the use of force, coercion or fraud to send someone to a new destination for profit. Although official data is scarce, experts say the problem is widespread in Sierra Leone.

With youth unemployment at nearly 60 percent and a majority of the population surviving on less than $3 a day, traffickers can prey on thousands of people yearning for better opportunities abroad. They often target women, touting high-paying jobs in the Middle East.

“You’re being sold a lifestyle,” says Vani Saraswathi of Migrant Rights, a Qatar-based advocacy group.

Agents offer jobs as nannies, hairdressers, housekeepers or salespeople in countries like Lebanon, Oman, Dubai, Kuwait and Turkey. But when their clients arrive in the destination country, their passports are often confiscated and they are forced into unpaid work in people’s homes. Many young women report having been sexually abused.

“They said I was a slave and that I didn’t need to be paid,” says a woman who went to Oman to work as a cleaner. “When we were alone at home, the man had sex with me, he held a knife to my throat and told me he would cut me if I screamed.”

Those who monitor the problem say it is getting worse. “I see an increase,” says Christos Christodoulides, head of the United Nations Migration Agency in Sierra Leone. “Vulnerability has also increased.”

While some victims of human trafficking manage to escape, many remain trapped in terrible situations for years. Ninety-nine percent of 469 Sierra Leonean domestic workers in Oman surveyed over the past two years by the nonprofit Do Bold said they had been victims of trafficking. A third of them said they had been victims of sexual abuse.

Climate change is exacerbating the problem. Sierra Leone is ranked among the top 10 percent of countries most vulnerable to climate change, although it has contributed only 0.003 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions since 1950.

A third of its population lives on the coast, making its homes vulnerable to worsening flooding. Some of the country’s islands are submerged, forcing residents to find themselves on increasingly small sandbanks.

There is a “serious increase” in the number of people trafficked after their homes were destroyed by floods or mudslides, said Sheku Bangura, who heads the Advocacy Network Against Irregular Migration (ANAIM) which supports repatriated migrants and helped save Zainab. from Oman.

Every year, flash floods devastate Freetown, destroying homes and killing civilians. The city recorded more than 400 floods in 2021 and 2022, which claimed hundreds of lives. After heavy rains last summer, torrents of muddy water poured into the ground floor wards of Connaught, the country’s largest hospital, damaging equipment and putting patients at risk.

Crop failures caused by unpredictable rainfall are pushing farmers into cities, where crowded settlements on steep slopes are increasingly vulnerable to mudslides. In 2017, after unusually heavy rains, a mountain peak collapsed onto the settlement below, killing more than 1,000 people as they slept.

Kroo Bay, Freetown
Some of Freetown’s poorest communities live in areas such as Kroo Bay, which are highly prone to flooding (Olivia Acland/Al Jazeera)

“They used shovels to hit us”

Saccoh Kamara was trafficked to Dubai shortly after a mudslide tore through his home, killing his father and three-year-old son.

Early in the morning of August 14, 2017, Kamara returned from a construction site to find his village buried in mud and rubble. The mudslide happened around 6 a.m., while her son and father were sleeping inside the house.

“We never found their bodies,” he said.

After spending two weeks in hospital where he was treated for shock, Kamara, now 36, began rebuilding his life by moving in with a cousin on the Freetown waterfront. When that house was also destroyed by floods – becoming more frequent as sea levels rise – he decided to leave Sierra Leone for good.

A trafficker promised him a lucrative job in a supermarket checkout in Dubai. Instead, he was put to work, without pay, in a frozen food warehouse. Imprisoned there for seven months, he worked around the clock, resting for just an hour at a time on the floor in a corner.

“They used shovels to hit us,” says Kamara. “When I wanted to rest, they came to beat me.”

After escaping and being deported to Sierra Leone, Kamara began volunteering at ANAIM, Bangura’s advocacy group, trying to prevent others from becoming victims of predatory traffickers.

Increasingly unpredictable weather conditions are pushing farmers to Freetown (Olivia Acland/Al Jazeera)

Police sting

Before leaving the police station on the back of a motorcycle driven by an undercover police officer, Zainab puts on a large pair of sunglasses.

“I don’t want him to remember me,” she said.

As they reach the meeting point, four other police officers, two of them armed with Kalashnikovs, wait in a nearby van. Soon, a thin man in his forties approaches Zainab on foot. She tells him that she is struggling to pay school fees for her younger siblings and that she got her number from a friend, Adama – who she knows was tricked into unpaid work at the Lebanon. The man nods sympathetically and says he can help: he sent Adama, 18, to Beirut last year.

This is enough for Zainab who presses the call button on her phone in her pocket. Moments later, she turns away as the police rush from their hiding place to arrest the trafficker, afraid that he will remember her face.

Since Sierra Leone passed a new law in 2022 introducing a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison for anyone convicted of human trafficking, dozens of agents have been arrested. However, only three of them were convicted – and one of them was acquitted shortly afterwards. Traffickers often bribe their way out of prison or use political contacts to pull the strings.

In the absence of a strong justice system, “the best prevention is education so that people ask the right questions when offered a job,” says Saraswathi of Migrant Rights.

Yet even education carries risks. ANAIM in Bangura hosts a weekly radio show in which returnees tell uplifting stories about trafficking. In one episode, he implored victims to provide information on traffickers, implying that he already had a database of agents. The following night, his office door was broken down and two computers stolen.

“I feel like we’re fighting a never-ending battle,” Bangura says. “But I’m committed to fighting it.”

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