A group of Burundian women wait for emergency food supplies to be distributed at Kamvivira transit centre. UNHCR/Eduardo Soteras Jalil Source: UNOCHA

Recent media reports have revealed the harrowing fate of women smuggled out of Burundi and subjected to forced labor and abuse in the Middle East. Amid the struggling economy, pervasive poverty, and political insecurity, many are willing to risk everything for a promise of a better life abroad. The traffickers understand the situation and take advantage of the people's desperation, making Burundi one of the key source countries for trafficked persons in Eastern Africa.  

Burundi is a landlocked country in East-Central Africa bordered by Tanzania to the east, Rwanda to the north, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the west. Even though the vast majority of the population is Hutu, traditionally farming people, Burundi has been governed by the privileged Tutsi — as in neighboring Rwanda, which has 15 percent of its population belonging to the Tutsi people. 

The colonial rule perpetuated this power structure, strengthening the dominance of the Tutsi minority over the Hutu majority. After Burundi gained independence in 1962, the Tutsi found themselves in control of the army and most of the economy, particularly the lucrative international export of coffee, while the Hutu remained marginalized and impoverished.  

As a consequence, just like many other countries in the region, Burundi's post-colonial history has been marked by years of bloody ethnic conflicts and recurring waves of violence, including a 1993-2005 Burundian Civil War which claimed roughly 300,000 lives. The conflict ended with the adoption of a new constitution that provides guaranteed representation for both Hutu and Tutsi. However, the task of quelling ethnic dissent, promoting unity, and rebuilding the country has proven difficult, leading to another political and security crisis in 2015, following a contested presidential election. The conflict has left many people displaced. Approximately 346,000 Burundians remain in neighboring countries as refugees and around 130,000 internally displaced. 

Map of Africa, with Burundi's placement on it. Source: Stand Now

As the political situation has been slightly improving, refugees and the displaced have begun to return to their homes despite lack of basic services or land. Such situations have left these people highly vulnerable and desperate. Years of insecurity and war have made Burundi one of the world's poorest nations with about 1.77 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP). Climatic hazards and the resurgence of epidemics, including Ebola spreading from neighboring Congo, have aggravated the dire economic situation

The returnees, especially women and children who face the most unfavorable socioeconomic conditions, are at the highest risk of exploitation. Children and young adults are coerced into forced labor in farming, mining, informal commerce, fishing, or collecting river stones for construction. Burundian women, in particular, are forced into prostitution to pay for living expenses. Sex workers and other forced laborers frequently experience non-payment of wages as well as verbal and physical abuse. Traffickers often recruit women under false pretenses; some families are complicit in the exploitation of children and adults with disabilities, accepting payment from traffickers.  

But the trafficking "business" in Burundi has a transnational dimension as well. International organizations report that young women from Burundi are particularly vulnerable to forced labor and sex trafficking in the Middle East and Gulf countries. Traffickers lure victims with fake job offers and promises of a better life in countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar. Yet, upon arrival, they are subjected to forced labor and harassment, have their passports confiscated, are paid less than agreed - if at all - and made to work excessive hours without breaks. 

Several Arab countries are infamously known for the kafala system, which has been dubbed a form of "modern-day slavery" by rights groups. According to Human Rights Watch, the scheme grants "sponsoring employers substantial control over workers and leaves workers vulnerable to situations of trafficking and forced labor." By legally binding domestic workers to their employers and giving them nearly no legal protection, the system renders them helpless in case they are advertised or sold online. This alone can affect the safety of expats coming for security and money in the Arab world, a region known for its oil money and lavishness. 

The magnitude of such practices is largely unknown but some NGOs estimate that between 500 and 3,000 young Burundian women were victims of trafficking in the Arab region between 2015 and 2016. 

Source: AFK Travel

Unfortunately, not much has been done to address this issue. Since 2015, the Burundian government has not prosecuted or convicted any trafficking offenders. In fact, a number of Burundian government employees, including teachers, police officers, military, and prison officials are believed to be complicit in trafficking by procuring children and young women to the traffickers. 

The government has also failed to establish mechanisms of reporting the number of victims identified or referred to assistance, or procedures to assist in the identification, protection, and support for the victims. 

However, not all of it is a result of ignorance or bad will. Lack of funding and know-how seriously constrains the government's ability to tackle the problem. Therefore, action is required both from other national governments and the civil society. 

The international community should put pressure on Burundian authorities to prioritize the issue. They should also provide expert and legal support to create new relevant laws and set up appropriate channels for tracking down and prosecuting the traffickers. Financial aid is equally necessary though – funding the training of police and immigration officers as well as assisting NGOs that take care of the victims on the ground are among the key gaps to be filled.

Beirut, Lebanon
Workers protesting against kafala in Lebanon. Source: Facebook/MCCBeirut

The need for such actions seems to be increasingly realized. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in partnership with the Burundian government launched a project last year called  Burundi Counter-Trafficking 2019-2022. The $3-million project, funded by the Netherlands, aims at regulating government bodies and linking them to the national police and civil society to implement anti-trafficking measures, including prevention, prosecution, and reintegration assistance.

This is certainly a step in the right direction. However, in the long term, what Burundians really need is food security, decent economic opportunities, and access to basic public services, lack of which is pushing them towards desperate measures. To achieve this, Burundi has to develop and sustain political consensus and a functioning economy. 

Therefore, all domestic and international efforts aimed at nation-building based on inclusive democratic participation and equal rights and opportunities are the key to addressing the underlying problem of human trafficking.