South Africa

Op-Ed: More harm than good – the politics of child trafficking prevention in South Africa

By De Gruchy, Vearey, Richter & Quirk 22 September 2015

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. By THEA DE GRUCHY, JOEL QUIRK, MARLISE RICHTER and JO VEAREY.

An important public debate on child trafficking and immigration is 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 Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom, who recently broke party discipline by publicly talking about the “worrying” impact of new immigration regulations on international tourism. In the other corner sits Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, 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, Government 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 the country. 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 R1.4-billion ($104.5-million) 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 its 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 adults other than 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 co-operation. 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 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 requires, 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 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 to middle-class South Africans and international tourists entering and leaving the country.

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 the 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.

This types of inflated and speculative figure is 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 workers. This panic over trafficking resulted in a flourishing of once-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 United Nations Protocol on Trafficking) and the self-appointed role of the US 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 a seemingly ‘robust’ human trafficking policy is assumed to send.

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 need to be driven by the 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 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 this review will eventually extend to all anti-trafficking responses. DM

Photo: A picture made available on 06 July 2012 shows three South African Airways (SAA) planes (R, front and 2-L) parked amongst other airlines at OR Tambo, Johannesburg’s international airport, South Africa, 05 July 2013. EPA/UDO WEITZ.

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