Monday, July 10, 2023

It was a time for celebrating progress: a significant improvement in monitoring and fighting trafficking in persons enabled Burundi in July 2022 to move to Tier 2 on the Trafficking in Persons Report. To put it simply, thanks to USAID’s intentional interventions and coordination with State Department officials at the US Embassy, Burundi was recognized internationally as having taken considerable action to address and prevent human trafficking. 

Trafficking in persons, or human trafficking, is a form of modern-day slavery that exists in many countries around the world. It is a crime whereby traffickers exploit and profit at the expense of adults or children by compelling them to perform labor, or engage in commercial sex. Human trafficking is a problem that persists and plagues the lives of Burundians, especially children, women and members of the most vulnerable populations. 

The actions that led to this improvement in Burundi tackled the problem of human trafficking from many different angles. Child rights monitors were trained and sent into the communities to identify victims and refer them to appropriate services, including care, reintegration and vocational training. Court officials received training on the legal framework and its application, as well as on child-friendly interview techniques. Interventions included strengthening cross-border surveillance, conducting formal identification of victims, establishing a referral system, and providing appropriate reintegration and recovery services.

The Government of Burundi increased investigations, prosecutions and convictions of traffickers and complicit officials, and intensified targeted cooperation with foreign officials in countries like Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, and -Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Burundian nationals are most often trafficked. The hotline established and operated by the government helped identify victims of trafficking in persons.

To help victims transition to survivors, in 2022 alone USAID, through implementing partners such as IOM and UNICEF, supported 434 survivors of human trafficking in Burundi with tailored and sustainable reintegration support. As part of comprehensive, high-quality services for trafficking victims, interventions included income generating activities, vocational training, and education.

Burundi’s challenging security environment, endemic poverty and low education levels create an opportunity for criminals, including traffickers, to take advantage of Burundians in precarious or desperate situations.

Due to regional instability, internally displaced persons and returning refugees, particularly single mothers and widows, frequently lack access to basic services, food, money and permanent housing, and are at a higher risk for trafficking. Young children are found working as peddlers, domestic workers, construction laborers. They are working long hours, being denied payment, and experiencing sexual and physical abuse. Sexual exploitation of young girls from refugee and IDP (internally displaced persons) camps is particularly common as men from the host communities promise gifts, food and money in exchange for sex.

With increased controls at Burundi’s airport and official border crossings, traffickers have changed their routes and methods. They now transport the trafficking victims by land, increasingly using unofficial border crossings to transit to neighboring countries. The recruiters are often Burundians, but the handlers, guides and receiving personnel are foreigners. Some families are complicit, too, accepting payment from traffickers who run the forced street begging operations using children and adults with disabilities. Orphans are at a particularly high risk for trafficking, but so are children from extremely poor families, where parents lie about the children’s age so they could start working. Traffickers take the children and force them to work in domestic service, or as sex workers in private homes, guesthouses and entertainment establishments. When the police find the victims, they bring them back to Burundi, and place them in care of accommodation centers run by NGOs.

Five centers currently offer temporary shelter, medical and psychosocial care, legal assistance, education and training to victims of trafficking. One of them, called Birashoboka Accommodation Center, currently shelters and cares for 42 boys, all victims of trafficking in persons, between 0 and 17 years old. Some of the children here were trafficked in-country, while others, like Claude, were victims of cross-border trafficking.

Claude was found working in Tanzania when he was only 14 years old. His employer was refusing to pay him his salary, and would beat him. The severe beatings he suffered caused a serious leg injury. An organization monitoring violations of children’s rights found him in April 2022, and referred him to Birashoboka Center, where he received medical treatment for his injuries, and psychosocial support for his recovery.

Now 15 years old, Claude is healing, working on finishing his training in carpentry, and hoping to be an entrepreneur. “I feel good here, among children. I feel like I belong to a family now,” he says.

Children stay at these accommodation centers anywhere from 3 days to 2 years. They age out of this service when they turn 17. The social worker and the psychologist assess the situation for each child to determine the next steps. Some children can and want to return to their relatives, while for others this would mean putting them back in the hands of the people who trafficked or abused them. In those cases, the center keeps them until a new solution is found. In the past, some of the children have been adopted by foreigners. Others continue with their studies at the Center, until they can start their lives independently.

Birashoboka is run by Burundi Kids Allemagne and UNICEF thanks to funds from USAID. It is one of many interventions funded by USAID/Burundi with the aim of preventing and fighting trafficking in persons.

Burundi has indeed made tremendous progress in fighting against trafficking in persons, but serious challenges remain, and the work ahead is intense. Combatting this issue holistically will take funding, education, services, and cross-border cooperation in a complex region that frequently experiences unrest.

Since 2019, USAID/Burundi has invested $5,279,500 in fighting trafficking in persons, and plans to add another $750,000 this year. In its commitment to help build a free, peaceful and prosperous world, USAID remains steadfast in supporting the local government and partners, so that children like Claude can have a childhood, opportunities and a stable future.


Survivors of trafficking in persons playing soccer at the accommodation center
© UNICEF Burundi/2022/E.R. Santamaria
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