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No new evidence that 30,000 children are trafficked in South Africa each year

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Are 30,000 children trafficked each year in South Africa? In October 2013, Africa Check investigated the claim and found it to be exaggerated and unsubstantiated.

Nearly two years later the statistic is again making news headlines. This time the South African government is citing it as a reason for introducing stricter regulations for children traveling into and out of the country.

How many children are trafficked in South Africa each year? Are the estimates reliable? And will stricter visa regulations help? We reviewed the evidence.

Full birth certificate to ‘protect children’

South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs started enforcing new travel regulations in June 2015. Children under the age of 18 must now carry their  full, or “unabridged”, birth certificate when crossing South Africa’s borders. This shows the names of both parents.

A month before the regulations came into effect, director-general of the department, Mkuseli Apleni, briefed parliament on the new travel requirements. In his presentation he was reported to have claimed that an estimated 30,000 children were trafficked through South Africa every year.

His presentation stated that one of the benefits of requiring minors to travel with an unabridged birth certificates was “protecting [them] from child trafficking”.

23 victims detected by government in last 3 years

Home Affairs wouldn't provide Africa Check with an example of the unabridged birth certificate so we created our own by disguising a relatives's documents.Unfortunately there is little data and research on the prevalence of child trafficking in South Africa. This is partly because it is extremely difficult, and in most cases impossible, to quantify how many cases go undetected. Available research only sheds light on detected victims.

Marcel Van der Watt, lecturer and researcher at the University of South Africa's Department of Police Practice, told Africa Check that no one knew how many children were trafficked in South Africa each year.

Researching the matter previously, we found that the International Organisation for Migration reported assisting 306 victims of trafficking in the Southern African region between January 2004 and January 2010. Of these, 57 were children. In 2011, they reported assisting 13 victims in South Africa, but did not state how many were children.

In their 2014 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime stated that “the police reported to have detected 155 victims of trafficking [of all ages] during the fiscal years 2011/12 and 2012/13” in South Africa.

When asked whether new evidence of child trafficking cases have emerged since, Jo Vearey, associate professor at the African Centre for Migration and Society, directed us to a parliamentary question answered by Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, in June this year.

Gigaba said that his department had recorded no instances of child trafficking between 2009/10 and 2011/12. Between 2012/13 and 2014/15 they had detected 23 victims.

Regulations won't reduce child trafficking - experts

The director of the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria, Professor Ann Skelton, has said her centre believes the new requirements are “far too broad” and that “the inconvenience to ordinary people far outweighs the actual risk of trafficking”.

Liesl Muller and Patricia Erasmus, both attorneys at Lawyers for Human Rights, previously told Africa Check that the measures will not prevent child trafficking.

“Real human traffickers don’t follow legitimate and documented methods of travel but cross the border in illegitimate and clandestine circumstances. The regulations won’t prevent this,” they said.

Conclusion: The claim remains exaggerated and unsubstantiated

South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs recently told parliament that their new travel regulations would help prevent an estimated 30,000 children being trafficked in the country each year.

While the true extent of human trafficking is unknown, no evidence supports the claim.  The Department of Home Affairs reported that they had detected 23 cases in the last three years.

Government must act to prevent the horrifying act of child trafficking. However, policies and interventions must be based on sound research and accurate estimates, not exaggerated claims.

Edited by Anim van Wyk

Additional reading

Are 30,000 children really ‘trafficked’ in South Africa every year? The claim exaggerates the problem

FACTSHEET: How to travel with children into and out of SA (and what is an unabridged birth certificate?)

FACTSHEET: Understanding human trafficking

FACTSHEET: What is slavery?


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