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Doing more harm than good: the politics of child trafficking prevention in South Africa

Recently introduced anti-trafficking regulations in South Africa are doing more harm than good. This is because they have been driven by panic and international pressure, not evidence.

Malusi Gigaba (centre) briefs the media on the new immigration regulations 29 May 2014. GovernmentZA/Flickr. Creative Commons.

An important public debate regarding child trafficking and immigration is currently taking place in South Africa. Media coverage of this increasingly heated discussion has focused on two duelling government ministers, both of whom are senior members of the ruling African National Congress. In one corner, we have Derek Hanekom, South Africa’s minister of tourism, who recently broke party discipline by publicly talking about the “worrying” impact of new immigration regulations on international tourism. In the other corner sits Malusi Gigaba, the minister of home affairs, who has strongly defended the new regulations by repeatedly emphasising their central role in “the protection of children” and ensuring that South Africa is not “viewed by international traffickers as a possible destination”.

The key provisions of these new immigration regulations (Gazette 37679, RG 10199, Govt Notice 413) require adults travelling with children to produce the 'unabridged' birth certificates of the children—a term which is largely unknown to people outside South Africa—at airports and border posts in order to enter or leave South Africa. If only one parent is travelling with the child, hardly an uncommon scenario, they are required to secure an affidavit from the absent parent confirming that they have permission to travel with the child, along with a certified copy of the non-travelling parent’s identity document or passport. These new requirements came into effect in June 2015, and apply to both South African citizens and foreigners travelling to and from South Africa.

The effects of these taxing requirements upon international travel patterns have been hotly debated. Tourists coming from outside Africa have been at the centre of this discussion, rather than regional travellers and migrants from other parts of the continent. Air traffic to South Africa has reportedly dropped by a third, and a study commissioned by the Tourism Business Council of South Africa estimated that the new visa regulations will cost South Africa 1.4 billion rand (104.5 million USD) in tourist revenues in 2015. This emphasis on tourism and lost revenue has unfortunately paved the way for an extremely problematic argument of ‘principle versus profit’. Gigaba and supporters of the policy argue that the goal of protecting children must be placed ahead of ‘chasing profits’, since one child becoming a victim of trafficking is ‘one child too many’. There are many problems with this emotionally manipulative argument.  

This piece seeks to demonstrate that new regulations and associated anti-trafficking policies are fundamentally flawed. We have two main points to make in support of this overall conclusion. First, we contend that the collateral damages associated with anti-trafficking policies in South Africa have too often ended up hurting—rather than helping—vulnerable populations. This is important, because it calls into question the foundations of the current ‘principle versus profit’ formula. Put more directly: these new regulations are a terrible idea irrespective of their economic effects due to their human costs. Second, we argue that the evidence that has been put forward to justify anti-trafficking responses is questionable and speculative. Instead of being driven by available evidence, current anti-trafficking policies have been driven by US-led international pressure and a desire on the part of the South African government to signal their commitment to international expectations as far as anti-trafficking is concerned.  Once these points are taken into consideration it quickly becomes apparent that the issues at stake are much wider and more complex than a decline in international tourist numbers.

Anti-trafficking and collateral damage in South Africa

Efforts to combat human trafficking can sometimes look good on paper, but then end up doing more harm than good in practice. Researchers studying responses to trafficking have come to describe this disconnect between aims and outcomes in terms of ‘collateral damage’. Research in many different contexts has shown that anti-trafficking policies inflict the most damage upon marginalised and vulnerable populations. Common examples include police abusing those they are supposed to assist, immigration systems mistreating migrants with impunity, and people who have been ‘rescued’ from trafficking being subjected to various forms of incarceration, exploitation and abuse. Instead of providing a solution, the state and its agents can often end up making things worse.

Collateral damage is a crucial yet often overlooked component of South African anti-trafficking policies. One set of issues resolves around the time, expense, and physical and emotional toil required to secure documents. Prior to 2013, the South African government only issued ‘abridged’ birth certificates, so the first effect of the regulations was to make it necessary for many parents to apply for the now essential ‘unabridged’ version. Even in the most straightforward scenarios this translates into multiple visits to the Department of Home Affairs, which has a reputation for being slow, inconsistent and corrupt. However, things quickly become more complicated in cases where the father of the child is unknown, where the parents are divorced/separated, where one parent is dead, or where the child is travelling with non-parents. It is at this point that affidavits, court rulings, death certificates and other onerous requirements come into play.

The effects of these requirements upon vulnerable women are especially troubling. Mothers are required to secure permission from estranged and sometimes abusive fathers, who have been known to demand payment for their cooperation. When mothers cannot secure permission from the father of their child—at times they cannot even locate him—they must often give up their plans to travel. In some cases, they may end up bringing their children across the border using irregular channels, thereby endangering the children and making their stay in South Africa more precarious. Since these requirements apply to hundreds of thousands of people, the cumulative damages associated with these new immigration requirements are very high.

The punitive effects associated with securing documentation can be further compounded by lived experiences at airports and border posts. There have been numerous reports of border agents inventing additional and unexpected requirements that go well beyond what the text of the regulations require, rejecting documents on dubious grounds, and generally making it unnecessarily difficult, traumatic and expensive to attempt to enter or leave South Africa with children. Instead of being no more than a ‘slight frustration’, these new regulations amount to a far-reaching burden that once again falls heaviest upon the most vulnerable.

It is important to keep in mind that the collateral damages associated with the new regulations are only one component of a larger series of punitive policies and practices involving migration. Parents seeking to travel can be placed alongside other mobile populations, such as job seekers, informal workers, and refugees, who similarly face significant challenges entering South Africa and accessing appropriate documentation. This connection is rarely made, however, since precarious migrants tend to fall below the popular radar and policies affecting them escape public scrutiny. The main reason these regulations have proved so contentious and provoked such sustained public debate is that they not only apply to poorer migrants, but also extend to middle-class South Africans and international tourists entering and leaving South Africa.

Evidence-based policy or panic-based policy?

All kinds of damages have been inflicted in the name of anti-trafficking, yet it is far from clear that human trafficking is anywhere near the problem it has been made out to be. Despite popular depictions of South Africa as a 'hotbed of human trafficking', the main driving forces behind recent policies have been panic and pressure, rather than evidence.

We can briefly point to two ways in which recent government responses have been disconnected from available evidence. The first is in relation to the overall scale of the problem. Gigaba originally claimed that there are 30,000 children trafficked into South Africa annually, yet parliamentary requests for data revealed that the Department of Home Affairs could only provide evidence of 23 possible cases of child trafficking between 2012 and 2015.

 These types of inflated and speculative figures are not new. We see similar types of inflated statistics in the moral panic over sex workers. Prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which was held in South Africa, it was locally and internationally reported that as many as 100,000 victims would be trafficked into South Africa in order to meet the increased demand for sex work. This panic over trafficking resulted in a flourishing of one-off trafficking awareness campaigns and fear-mongering. These fears subsequently proved to be unfounded and not one case of trafficking was reported during the World Cup (a pattern consistent with similar panics involving other major sporting events). This experience appears to have sparked remarkably little reflection. Rather than being guided by evidence and experience, policy makers have instead doubled down with yet more moral panic.

Much of what happens under the banner of anti-trafficking can be at least partially understood in terms of political performances, rather than policy calculations. The international panic around human trafficking that started in the 1990s—and which has gathered steam via the Palermo Protocol (the UN Protocol on Trafficking) and the self-appointed role of the United States as ‘global sheriff’—has contributed to a strong desire on the part of the South African government to at least be seen to be taking action. Whether or not specific policies actually prevent trafficking can be less important than the political signals assumed to be sent via a seemingly ‘robust’ human trafficking policy.

Following the evidence

The new immigrations regulations are unfit for purpose. They are ultimately doing more harm than good and need to be revoked as a matter of urgency. This does not mean, however, that there are no serious problems to be addressed. South Africa is currently facing a huge number of social, political and economic challenges, including the systematic exploitation and abuse of migrants and vulnerable workers, both children and adults. Instead of crafting responses that are driven by panic and pressure, future policy responses instead need to be driven by available evidence and past experience.

While the need for additional research is a common refrain in policy circles, on this occasion it is hard to see how things will improve without a major investment in the collection of reliable data. So much of what has taken place to date has been almost entirely based upon speculation and sensationalism, aided and abetted by a pattern of uncritical reporting by South African journalists. On this front, we would note that an additional ‘Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act’ recently came into effect on 9 August 2015. This legislation included detailed sections on collecting much-needed data on trafficking, but the regulations to operationalise these and other provisions have not yet been published. It is therefore not yet clear what effect they will have.

It has recently been reported that the South African Parliament is currently re-thinking the new immigration regulations and analysing their “unintended consequences”. We hope that this review will eventually extend to all anti-trafficking responses.

About the authors

Joel Quirk is Professor in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. His research focuses upon slavery and abolition, human mobility and human rights, repairing historical wrongs, and the history and politics of sub-Saharan Africa. Joel is currently a member of the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, where he serves as Rapporteur. Your can follow him on twitter at @joelquirk.

Marlise Richter is a senior member of Sonke Gender Justice,  a South African-based NGO that works across Africa to support men and boys in taking action to promote gender equality, prevent domestic and sexual violence, and reduce the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS.

Thea de Gruchy joined the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) as a research assistant in 2015 after having completed her MA with the centre.  The focus of her MA was on the immigration industry and the relationship between the state, immigration intermediaries, and migrants. She is currently working on issues of policy creation in South Africa, focusing specifically on the Trafficking in Persons Act of 2013.

Jo Vearey holds a PhD in public health and is an Associate Professor with the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand and holds a Senior Fellowship with the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development, McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts, Boston. Jo’s research focuses on migration and health in southern Africa.


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