General Overview of Human Trafficking in Ethiopia

(a historical perspective)

By Behaylu Girma – Ethiopia

Aug 2020

Feel free to share
Behaylu Girma


Human trafficking commonly referred to as ‘modern slavery’ is a global phenomenon that involves obtaining or maintaining the labor or service of another through the use of force, fraud, or coercion in violation of an individual’s human rights. It is an organized criminal activity which generates billions of dollars each year, human trafficking is one of the world’s fastest-growing criminal activities.

Today, despite the increasing global attention and significance of national responses, human trafficking is still a tragic reality with low risk and high reward for criminal actors. This has drawn the attention of agents and organizations around the world and become a challenge for national governments, because trafficking is a complex phenomenon that is often driven or influenced by social, economic, cultural, and other factors.

Countries can be utilized for a number of purposes where victims are concerned i.e. as points of origin, transit, or destination.  It is not uncommon for a combination of these purposes to occur within the same country.

Ethiopia is mainly a country of origin for men, women, and children subjected to trafficking in persons, especially cases of forced labor and forced prostitution. In Ethiopia, the problem is a flourishing money-making criminal enterprise whose large scale expansion can be traced back to the dawn of the new millennium (Kaleb, 2009). Sadly its magnitude, incidence, trends, and development continue to increase at an alarming rate.

  1. The Prevalence and Extent of Human Trafficking In Ethiopia

Though there is a lack of a clear common understanding and awareness about the specific causes, consequences and modes operandi relating to human trafficking, Ethiopia is also becoming a transit and destination point for women, men, and children who are subjected to forced labor and sexual exploitation (US department of state, TIP report 2014). As Yoseph, Mebratu and Belete, (2006) noted, nevertheless, due to extensive migration of people through several illegitimate and informal conduits, the existing data on the magnitude of trafficking impacting Ethiopia cannot provide a true picture of the intensity of the problem. The crime of human trafficking affects all regional states in the country.

IOM’s study in 2011 revealed that among Ethiopian immigrants in Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon, 87.1% of them were trafficked. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the magnitude of unreported cases is not clear.

Girls and women from Ethiopia’s rural areas are primarily forced into domestic servitude and, less frequently, commercial sexual exploitation in the Middle East and the Gulf States, other destinations include, Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan and Tanzania.  Boys are subjected to forced labor in traditional weaving, gold mining, agriculture/ herding, and street vending. The US Department of State TIP report 2014 indicates that Ethiopian trafficking victims have been subjected to conditions of forced labor, involuntary domestic servitude, involuntary prostitution, traditional weaving, organ harvesting, guarding, and debt bondage.

As a result, Ethiopian women in the Middle East face severe abuse, including physical and sexual assault, denial of salary, sleep deprivation, confinement/ incarceration, and murder. Many are driven to despair and mental ill-ness, some commit suicide. Some women are exploited in the sex trade after arriving at their destinations, particularly in brothels and near the oil fields in Sudan.

Currently, the problem is expanding in scope within some of the most recognized destinations in the Middle East and has further been spreading to diverse regions throughout the world. For example the US department of state TIP report (2011:157) revealed that in 2010, 10 Ethiopian girls were found trafficked to china for sexual exploitation.

The Ethiopian government has become party to different international and regional instruments that suppress and prevent human trafficking. It has criminalized human trafficking and recently enacted proclamation No. 1178/2020 to suppress and prevent human trafficking and smuggling of migrants. The government made progress over the past year in addressing transnational trafficking through significantly increased law enforcement efforts. However, the problem continues highly intensely and with different modes operandi.

  • Challenges of Countering Human Trafficking in Ethiopia

Mahdavi (2010) revealed that court cases against human traffickers are often initiated by the police who have frequent contact with victims, offenders, and informants. In light of this law enforcement personnel should have appropriate skills, knowledge, and ethics to prosecute cases concerning human trafficking. However, in Ethiopia a knowledge and skills gap in the investigation of human trafficking cases is evident among investigators.

The US department of state report also stated that Ethiopian anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts focus on transnational trafficking, with little evidence that the government investigated internal sex or labor trafficking offences. The knowledge and skills gap is further aggravated by the organized nature and complexity of the problem and thus the challenges to connect with witnesses and acquire evidence.

The following are the basic and commonly identified challenges the criminal justice system face in fighting human trafficking.

  1. Investigative challenges
  • Failure to Identify the Victims;- Because of a constrained view of what constitutes trafficking in persons; law enforcement agents often fail to recognize exploited persons as victims of trafficking. The hidden nature of the crime is a contributory factor that leads to law enforcement agents misidentifying victims of human trafficking. Situations have also occurred where victims of trafficking have been treated as criminals.
  • Lack of Co-ordination among Law Enforcement Agencies; – Ethiopia follows a federal state structure and each regional state has its law enforcement officials. The issue of human trafficking is the responsibility of the federal and regional governments. However, responsibility for investigation and prosecution lies with the federal government. As a result regional law enforcement officials hesitate to participate in the investigation and prosecution process. This impairs the fight against human trafficking and gives rise to a bias or notion that in practice, the federal government is responsible for addressing the issue.
  • Lack of Enabling Environment to Tackle Human Trafficking; – Law enforcement personnel are constrained by the absence of an enabling environment for combating human trafficking. This includes inadequate funding for anti-trafficking activities, lack of equipment and facilities, and a lack of adequate data on human trafficking.
  1. Prosecution Challenges
  • Failure to Commence Trafficking Investigations; – According to the UN guidelines on the Role of Prosecutors, they have a responsibility to perform an active role in criminal proceedings, including the initiation of prosecutions. The Ethiopian criminal procedural code and legislative establishment have specified prosecutors have the power to lead and participate throughout the investigation process. However, in practice they do not always participate in investigations, this can lead to corrupt practices by law enforcement agents who close cases for personal gain.
  • Failure to Prosecute Traffickers for other Crimes Committed against Trafficking Victims; – The crime of human trafficking can cover a range of offences including torture, assault, rape, and mental abuse. However, in practice the judiciary/ law enforcement do not routinely consider such offenses as part of a human trafficking case. There is a tendency to focus on the crime in a general manner. This results in fewer or lighter sentencing.
  • Poor Status of Prosecuting;- The United States Department of State TIP report (2014) states that the government of Ethiopia did not demonstrate adequate efforts to investigate and prosecute internal trafficking crimes or support and empower regional authorities to effectively do so. The report also asserted that regional law enforcement entities throughout the country continued to exhibit an inability to distinguish human trafficking from human smuggling and did not properly investigate and document cases, or collect and manage relevant data on human trafficking.
  • Lack of Adequate and Comprehensive Laws; – Ethiopia is party to different international and regional instruments on the suppression and prevention of human trafficking. It has also enacted the human trafficking and smuggling of migrant’s proclamation No. 1178/2020. However, these laws are not comprehensive enough and there is no clear law for the protection of victims of human trafficking except proclamation No. 699/2010 which is a vague and general law.

Besides, there are no clear laws that would prosecute persons who obtain sexual services from trafficking victims. It is obvious traffickers of women or children for sexual purposes would have no incentive to engage in such heinous activities if there were no persons to use the services they provide. Further, up till now there is no comprehensive national policy on human trafficking in Ethiopia, this has challenged and hindered the fight against human trafficking in the country.

About the author

Behaylu Girma holds a Bachelor of Law, LLB degree from Mekelle University, Post Graduate Diploma in Police Science from Ethiopian Police University College, Management and Leadership Certificate from Vision Institute of Civic and Social Development and Master’s degree in Law (LLM) from Bahir Dar University.

Currently, he is a Ph.D. Candidate at Addis Ababa University Center for Human Rights and an independent consultant on law and police science. His area of interest includes human rights, human trafficking, internally displaced persons, criminal justice, and police science.

He has more than ten years of experience in teaching, research, and consultancy services in the area of law and police science. He was a tactical crime investigation coordinator and crime investigation diploma program manager at Ethiopian Police University College. He is a certified trainer in the area of human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants. In cooperation with General Attorney and International Organization for Migration, he gave different training for regional and federal investigators, public prosecutors, and judges at different times. As a national consultant, he has participated in the project of Better Migration Management in Ethiopia.

He has presented different workshop papers and published an article on the Jimma University Journal of Law. He is also a blogger at the Abyssinian Law web page and participates in a different community and voluntary services. He is certified as an Ambassador for Peace by Universal Peace Federation.