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End-of-mission Statement by the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially in women and children

“The Government must adopt urgent measures to tackle traditional and cultural factors that exacerbate trafficking of children from West and Central Africa into Gabon”

LIBREVILLE, 18 May 2012

“Esi, an 18 year old girl from Benin came to Gabon 3 years ago. She was brought without the knowledge of her parents, following an arrangement between her grandmother and an intermediary person who placed her to work in a Gabonese home. The constant mistreatment and harsh working conditions eventually led her to flee the house. She was found 10 kms away at the outskirts of the city and brought to one of the non- government Shelters in Libreville. Esi wants to go back home, however her previous ‘employer’ who never paid her for her services, took up a lawyer in order not to contribute financially to her repatriation (which includes a small repatriation fee and, one suitcase of clothes) envisaged in the handbook of procedures for assisting children who are victims of trafficking. The reason: Esi 18 is years old, and hence no longer a child. She therefore falls outside the ambit of the protection of the Law against trafficking in children.”

“Dia, is an 18 year old girl from Togo who came to Gabon 5 years ago. During her 5 days travel on a small cramped boat, she sat for 5 days without moving together with other children. She was brought through the intermediary of her mother’s friend to work as a baby-sitter for a family from Benin. In reality, Dia worked from 4 am to 10 pm selling peanuts in the market, in addition to household chores. She faced constant beating and accusation of theft. Dia ran away and was brought to a shelter by the Police. She wants to go back home, however her widowed mother of 8 children warns her that she will suffer if she came back as the family condition is dire. In Gabon, Dia is now considered an irregular migrant with no proper documentation, education and work. Her future is uncertain and bleak”

These cases are indeed heart breaking more so, when these children are trafficked early in life, denied education and made to undergo horrendous abuse and exploitation in a foreign land.

Following an invitation by the Government of the Republic of Gabon, I conducted an official visit to the country from 14 to 18 May 2012 to investigate the situation of trafficking in persons, progress made and remaining challenges in combating this phenomenon.

At the outset, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Government for accommodating this visit, which enabled me to obtain information regarding the current legislative framework and institutional programmes in place to address the phenomenon of human trafficking in the Republic of Gabon. The fact that the Government welcomed my visit demonstrates its commitment to combat the issue of trafficking in persons.

During this official mission to Libreville, I met with government officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, Labour, Social Affairs and Family, Interior and Defence. I also met with Public prosecution and visited the service for protection of minors within the police. I further held meetings with the monitoring committee in charge of implementing the platform of action on trafficking of children for the purpose of labour exploitation, the National Commission for Human Rights and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). More importantly, I met with victims themselves, including foreign girls during my visits to the government run Angondjé Shelter and two other shelters run by Caritas, namely Espoir and Arc en Ciel respectively for girls and boys.

The Republic of Gabon has shown willingness to combating trafficking in persons as reflected by the ratifications of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol), and the United Nations Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and on the Rights of the Child (CRC).At the regional level, the Republic of Gabon, as member of the Economic Community for Central Africa (ECCAS), has signed the ECCAS /Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Multilateral cooperation agreement to combat trafficking in persons, especially women and children in west and central Africa (Abuja Agreement).

At the national level, the Government has made some progress in efforts to address trafficking in persons in the country. Even before the ratification of the Palermo Protocol in 2010, it demonstrated its commitment to tackle the phenomenon of child trafficking by enacting Law No. 09/2004 on the Prevention and Fight against Trafficking in Children, which criminalises trafficking of children under the age of 18. Other legislation including in the penal law provide for further protection of children. I also welcome the establishment under the Ministry of Justice, of an Inter-Ministerial Commission to Prevent and Combat Trafficking in children. I am further pleased that multidisciplinary vigilance committees consisting of key Government agencies and civil society organizations are established in various provinces in order to collectively address trafficking in persons.
I also learnt of the steps taken by the Government in terms of international cooperation with neighbouring countries to combat the trafficking phenomenon in the region, particularly within the framework of the Abuja Agreement. I welcome the intention of the government to enter into bilateral agreements with numerous neighbouring countries of origin and transit on cooperation on human trafficking issues. Furthermore, I commend the Government for conducting training and capacity building activities in collaboration with the United Nations, particularly UNICEF.

However, despite these positive steps taken, I have noted a number of challenges that must be addressed by the Government if it is to succeed in effectively combating trafficking in persons and protecting the human rights of trafficked victims of all ages.

The Republic of Gabon is a destination and transit country for trafficked persons from the sub-region of West and Central Africa. Boys and girls below the age of 18 predominantly from Benin, Mali and Togo are attracted to coming in the country, which they see as one of the wealthy countries with prospects and opportunities for work. In the course of my visit, I found that the most common forms of trafficking in the Republic of Gabon are domestic work for young girls, servitude, and to some extent forced and early marriage; while for boys, work in the informal sector including auto mechanics and hard labour are common. Root causes of trafficking, include poverty and traditional practices, especially in West Africa, of sending children to live with relatives and demand for domestic workers by rich Gabonese families. Moreover, the trend, forms and manifestation of trafficking in persons are not well-understood and there is a general lack of awareness and knowledge of trafficking in persons beyond child trafficking for exploitative labour. Against this background, I encountered a number of issues of concerns during my mission in the Republic of Gabon.

Although the Government has adopted legislation to combat human trafficking, significant gaps remain. As it stands, the definition of trafficked person in Law 09/2004 is not in conformity with article 3 of the Palermo Protocol in terms of comprehensiveness and forms of trafficking. More specifically, Law 09/2004 limits its protection to victims of trafficking under the age of 18 and does not explicitly provide for all forms of labour exploitation including sexual exploitation, slavery and removal of organs. I therefore urge the Government to expand the scope of trafficking, to explicitly widen the forms and scope of protection to both trafficked women and men as per the Palermo Protocol.

During my visit, I have also noted that the collection of reliable national data to determine the prevalence rate, forms, trends and manifestation of human trafficking, including of children and women is lacking in the Republic of Gabon. The consequence of focusing almost exclusively on trafficking of boys and girls below the age of 18 is that other victims of trafficking remain invisible and unrecognized by not only the general population, but also the victims themselves and the competent authorities. There is therefore a need for improved understanding of the nature and scale of the problem of trafficking in persons in the Republic of Gabon. The scale of the problem, especially as regards labour and sexual exploitations of adult women and men, appears to be underestimated, with most adult victims unidentified. Equal emphasis should be placed on all forms and manifestations of trafficking and exploitation, and the lack of regulations for adult victims of trafficking should be addressed as one of the key structural factors fostering trafficking in persons, whether for sexual exploitation or forced labour or domestic servitude or other services.

While meeting with the various ministries and government authorities, I also noticed that in spite of existing structures for fighting trafficking of children such as the Inter- ministerial Commission, its monitoring committee and the vigilance committees, there is a weak coordination of anti-trafficking activities especially amongst governmental institutions and between national government and provincial authorities. Absence of a national plan of action with clear indicators and achievable outputs, regular meetings, leadership at national and provincial levels, and allocation of sufficient budget further contribute to the uncoordinated response to trafficking.

It is indeed alarming that to date no case of trafficking has been tried in the criminal court which contributes to the impunity of traffickers engaged in illicit and clandestine operations. The often long and complicated judicial process as well as the apparent lack of necessary skills of investigators following up on cases of trafficking are some elements contributing to delays in prosecution and ultimately adequate compensation for such victims.

The conditions of all government and CSO run shelters I visited are of grave concern. Although victims of trafficking are being offered shelters by the Government, I have noted the still huge shortfall between those needing assistance and the actual beneficiaries of such government shelter that mainly cater for 0-12 years olds. Victims of trafficking and other children in the shelter are kept together and shelters are not adequately funded. Moreover, the absence of shelters for adult women and men victims of trafficking perpetuates their victimisation. CSO run shelters also face similar challenges including lack of financial support from government.

Furthermore, I have noted that although the Ministry of Social Affairs and Family may provide assistance to victims of trafficking through the Agonjé Shelter there is little follow up after they have been repatriated or resettled. In addition lack of resources makes it difficult for this institution to provide a comprehensive assistance to the victims to guarantee their wellbeing and make sure they do not fall into the hands of traffickers again. I was further informed that due to financial constraints, the hotline service for the identification of trafficked children and subsequent referral to appropriate services is no longer free.

With a coastal border of more than 800kms and a porous border with 3 countries, the Republic of Gabon requires good cooperation with its neighbours to fight the phenomenon of trafficking. In this regards, I note that so far, the signing of MoUs have not materialised in spite of initiative of the government.

Finally, I remain concerned about the absence of a specific visa program to enable victims of trafficking to remain legally in the country. Concern for the safe return and repatriation of victims of trafficking include a risk of re-trafficking and re-victimisation, especially for trafficked children because family members are implicated in the exploitation of victims of trafficking.

In view of the above observations and concerns I make the following as interim recommendations to the Republic of Gabon:

NATIONAL FRAMEWORK

  • Ensure full domestic application of the Palermo Protocol, which requires the Republic of Gabon to take effective and comprehensive measures to prevent and combat trafficking in persons and speed up the process of adopting a review of the law that will protect and assist all victims as well as prosecute and punish traffickers. In particular, adopt, as soon as possible, a definition of trafficking in accordance with article 3 of the Palermo Protocol.
  • When revising the anti-trafficking law or adopting any relevant legislative amendment including the national action plan, use the “OHCHR Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking” as a reference, for guidance on how to include a human rights based approach into the combat against trafficking in persons.
  • Carry out a national study in collaboration with UN agencies to inform evidence based intervention that will enhance effectiveness and sustainability of actions to combat human trafficking.
  • Put in place a comprehensive data collection system on the phenomenon of human trafficking in the Republic of Gabon, including on trafficking of adults for labour exploitation as well as other forms, trends and manifestations of trafficking, such as that for forced and servile marriages. Such data on victims of trafficking should include their countries of origin and disaggregated, inter alia, by sex, age, nature and type of trafficking involved.
  • Enhanced coordination and efforts at combating trafficking would be better achieved if an office of an independent national rapporteur or a focal agency is created by law and charged with the responsibility to implement, monitor and evaluate activities aimed at combating human trafficking. The current Inter-Ministerial Commission (IMC) is not sufficient, as it is not a body with a secretariat, budget and personnel to make desired impact.
  • Revise, in consultation with all stakeholders, the existing national plan of action to address trafficking in persons with clearly identified objectives, delineated responsibilities, and clear indicators to measure progress and impact.

TRAINING AND CAPACITY

  • Provide comprehensive training programmes to enhance knowledge and awareness of human trafficking for all stakeholders, including judicial police, Gendamarie, immigration/border guards, prosecutors, judges and civil society organizations, including the media on effective reporting and messages on trafficking in persons. Furthermore, enhance the skills of labour inspectors to distinguish cases of trafficked victims from irregular migrants through training on the identification of trafficking victims.
  • Provide continued training for members of the IMC, the monitoring committee, the vigilance committee as well as law enforcement authorities, NGOs and shelters on identification of victims of trafficking.

SUPPORT SERVICES FOR VICTIMS OF TRAFFICKING

  • Protect and assist all victims of trafficking, including adult victims, with full respect for their human rights, and include a human rights based approach in the investigation of cases of trafficking that requires the needs of all victims to be placed at the core of any response.
  • Make provision for appropriate support, including the establishment of separate shelters for young victims of trafficking and another one for adults including outside the capital.
  • Ensure the reinstatement of the toll free telephone line within the Arcade Shelter and establish similar lines outside the capital to reach victims of trafficking. In particular, ensure toll free telephone hotlines operate 24 hours, are multi-lingual and have trained staff on trafficking in persons.
  • Provide adequate funding on a regular basis to service providers and organisations working on trafficking in persons both in cities and rural areas in order to enable comprehensive assistance such as social, psychological, medical, legal support, as well as translation assistance and interpretative services to victims of trafficking;
  • Provide assistance to victims including the grant of temporary or permanent residence permit when appropriate. Ensure that the best interest of the child is served particularly in cases when returning him/her to his/her country may put the child at risk of re-trafficking and re-victimisation by family members;
  • Maintain close cooperation with UNICEF and UNHCR for the safe return of trafficked victims in their country having due regard to the need, if any, of international protection of the victims.
  • Establish a comprehensive national compensation scheme for victims of trafficking to compensate victims as well as for victim support and assistance.

PREVENTION

  • Address the root causes of trafficking, such as traditional practices, especially in West Africa of sending children to live with relatives and demand for domestic workers by rich Gabonese families.
  • Step up efforts to raise awareness about all forms of trafficking in persons, including for domestic servitude, forced labour and sexual exploitation, in order to promote understanding of what constitutes trafficking; among the general population and the foreign community based in the Republic of Gabon. In this regards, empower the NHRC including through adequate budget and office space, to conduct sensitisation of trafficking and handle complaints related to trafficking.
  • Furthermore, widespread campaigns should be launched to raise public awareness on this issue using media, ICT and other channels of communication in order to send a strong message against the cultural acceptance of both human trafficking and exploitation of children.

PROSECUTION

  • Improve the Justice delivery system to ensure speedy adjudication of cases of trafficking by regularly convening the criminal court whilst guaranteeing fair trial rights consistent with human rights based approach to criminal justice response.
  • Ensure that in prosecution of cases of trafficking, victims/witnesses are protected at pre-trial, during and post-trial to avoid reprisal attacks.

INTERNATIONAL FRAMEWORK

  • Ratify, without delay the ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families; Ensure full compliance with the Palermo Protocol by taking immediate steps to harmonize with the municipal legal system.
  • Strengthen partnership with source countries in the sub-region and extend cooperation, including through bilateral agreements, for exchange of information, mutual legal assistance and safe returns.

In conclusion I wish to emphasize that the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons requires ratifying State Parties to take effective and comprehensive action to prevent and combat trafficking in persons, especially women and children, protect and assist the victims as well as prosecute and punish traffickers.

To that extent, a holistic, effective and sustainable approach to combating trafficking must be hinged on the following 5 P’s (Protection, Prosecution, Punishment, Prevention, and Promotion), 3’Rs (Redress, Rehabilitation/Recovery and Reintegration of victims) and 3’Cs (Capacity, Cooperation and Coordination).

I therefore urge the Government to address the root causes of trafficking including demand for cheap labour from poor neighbouring countries and the prevailing cultural and social frameworks that contribute to increase people’s vulnerability to trafficking. International cooperation through the adoption of bilateral agreements and MOUs with neighbouring countries and other countries of origins of victims of trafficking in particular Benin, Togo and Mali is imperative in tackling this ugly phenomenon of modern slavery within this sub- region. In this regards, the “Abuja Agreement on Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children” should be adhered to by all parties.

I thank the Government once more for the opportunity of this visit and for the willingness and openness shown by all stakeholders to contribute to its success. Human trafficking is a multidimensional phenomenon and we must all cooperate together and adopt a multisectoral and multidisciplinary approach to combat this evil and to better protect the human rights of trafficked persons. I am confident that the Republic of Gabon can become a model for other countries in central Africa and beyond.

A full report of this mission will be submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2013.

For the use of the media; not an official record.

END

Joy Ngozi Ezeilo assumed her functions as Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially in women and children on 1 August 2008. Ms. Ezeilo is a human rights lawyer and professor at the University of Nigeria. She has also served in various governmental capacities, including as Honourable Commissioner for Ministry of Women Affairs & Social Development in Enugu State and as a Delegate to the National Political Reform Conference. She has consulted for various international organizations and is also involved in several NGOs, particularly working on women’s rights. She has published extensively on a variety of topics, including human rights, women’s rights, and Sharia law. Ms. Ezeilo was conferred with a national honour (Officer of the Order of Nigeria) in 2006 for her work as a human rights defender.

Learn more about the mandate and activities of the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Trafficking/Pages/TraffickingIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Selma Vadala (Tel: +41 22 917 9108 / email: svadala@ohchr.org) or write to srtraffiking@ohchr.org.
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