Trafficking syndicate busted

Five people responsible for trafficking teenage girls for commercial sex, domestic servitude, forced marriage, street vending and labour have been imprisoned for their crimes and their victims are free.

Shockingly, one of those responsible had proclaimed himself a Pastor.

The criminal network was unearthed thanks to the work of a village Child Protection Committee – part of Hope for Justice’s vital Community Prevention projects in Uganda. After the initial report from the committee in mid-August, we worked with law enforcement and another agency to investigate the gang and seek justice and restitution for the victims.

Three girls, aged 15, 18 and 19, were brought to one of our Lighthouses for safe shelter, care, counselling and the support they needed to give evidence about what happened to them. Working with the Police Criminal Investigations Department, a trafficking case was opened. Statements from the three children and their medical reports were attached to the case file.

An undercover sting operation co-ordinated with the police, at which a 15-year-old girl and a 21-year-old were brought to an agreed venue and the perpetrator asked the undercover agent for UGX 50,000 (£10 / US$13) for the younger girl. The trafficker was arrested then and there, and the girls brought to safety where they could share their stories.

This helped further build the intelligence picture, clearly identifying a “chain of exploitation” that included respected members of the community and organised criminal syndicates.

Our Uganda director, Florence Soyekwo, said: “The frontline recruiters are respected village elders, family members, and friends who are not aware that the children they identify end up in abuse and exploitation. One particular member of the criminal gang demands an equivalent of £18 per girl for a false promise of a job in a factory in Kampala. He gathers the children and sends them to a collection point in a nearby town.”

This is where the ‘Pastor’ operated from, and from where the girls were trafficked on to be abused and ‘owned’. More victims were rescued at this collection when Hope for Justice supported police investigators.

Five perpetuators have been arrested, appeared in court and remanded to prison. The Head of Anti-Trafficking at the Department of Police passed a message to our team saying: “Hope for Justice, thank you so much for supporting the process of investigations on this trafficking case! Resources to aid investigations is always our big challenge!”

A specialist Hope for Justice social worker is helping the children because of their high levels of trauma. They also feel an emotional burden of responsibility because of the economic expectations of their families back home, most of whom sold the few household assets to buy the promised jobs.

“My dad sold the few assets at home for me to come and work. I need to send money back home for the family to survive!” said a 16-year-old victim.

They had been coached to lie about their ages to disrupt investigators. At least one of the girls was found to be pregnant.

We are delighted to see justice done in this case, while being horrified at what these children and young women have been subjected to. We continue to offer them world-class care as they look to the future.

Quotes from the survivors:

“She has taken 80,000/= from me. This money was meant to help me as I settled in my new work –the only proceedings from the sale of the only goat we had left at home. I want my money so I can send it to my mother!’’ – 15-year-old survivor

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were closed. When an opportunity to work in a big factory came along, my father quickly sold his goats to enable our (siblings)recruitment. However, on reaching Kampala I was sold off as a street-vendor of cakes!” – 18-year-old survivor who was rescued with her sister and now at our Lighthouse

“I just want to return home. I have been mistreated and denied food in the home of Somalis where I was sold into. I want to resume school and become a medical doctor.” – 15-year-old girl rescued and now at our Lighthouse