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Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Human Trafficking in Uganda

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1.0 Background and Context

In a media briefing on the 11th of March 2020, Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus announced that the WHO “had made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic.” 1 According to WHO data, currently, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected over 213 countries and territories around the world, and as at the 13 th of July 2020, there have been over 12.3 million confirmed cases and 556,335 confirmed deaths globally. 2 Since the elevation of COVID-19 to pandemic status by the WHO, States around the globe have swung into action in efforts to combat the spread of the virus and flatten the curve of infections. 3 Measures such as enforced quarantine, curfews, lockdown and travel restrictions, and restrictions on non-essential parts of economic and public life have been adopted by Governments in the fight to stem the rise of infections. 4 These adopted measures have contributed to reduce the spread of the virus, but they also carry negative consequences that have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable in our society, including victims and survivors of human trafficking, and other exploited persons. Production has been halted or considerably reduced in various countries, severely affecting global supply chains. 5 Economic activity at global, regional, and local levels have been significantly affected, resulting in widespread loss of livelihood and income. These resulting effects of the pandemic carry the risk of exacerbating the vulnerabilities of persons at risk of human trafficking.

1.1 COVID-19 in Uganda

On the 13 th of March 2020, the Ugandan Government issued the Public Health (Notification of COVID19) Order 2020(Notification Order), which recognised the COVID-19 pandemic as a “notifiable disease for the purposes of the Public Health Act.” 8 Order 3 of the Notification Order extends the provisions of Section 11 (Power to make rules); Part IV (Prevention and Suppression of Infectious Diseases); and Section 36 (Power to Enforce Precautions at Borders) of the Public Health Act to the COVID-19 pandemic. 9 This began the process of what can be described as a creeping lockdown. Furthermore, on the 21 st of March, the Ugandan Government issued Public Health (Prohibition of Entry into Uganda) Order 2020, 10 which prohibits the “entry into Uganda by any person … through any border posts”. Uganda announced its first confirmed COVID-19 patient on the 22 nd of March, and on the 24 th of March, the government further issued the Public Health (Control of COVID-19) Rules 2020 11 (Control of COVID-19 Rules). Rule 9 of the Control of COVID-19 Rules temporarily restricted public gatherings such as schools, bars and movie halls, concerts, marriage ceremonies and religious events. 12 Uganda fully went into lockdown on the 31 st of March, stopping all public transport, private cars, and non-essential movement. However, although some restrictions have been relaxed and the movement of private cars and public transportation have resumed, restrictions banning public gatherings, shutting borders, and closing schools still remain.

1.2 Human Trafficking in Uganda

Uganda has been identified as a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking. 13 Human trafficking in Uganda occurs on both transnational and internal levels. Victims of internal trafficking are mostly trafficked from rural and underserved communities to major cities, and are exploited in domestic service, street begging and vending, sexual exploitation including forced marriage and commercial sexual exploitation, and labour exploitation especially in the agricultural industry. 14 Transnational trafficking in Uganda is multifaceted. Despite serious reports of ongoing human trafficking related exploitation, significant numbers of Ugandan nationals emigrate primarily to the Middle East and other Gulf countries yearly due to high levels of poverty and unemployment. 15 There have also been reports of the trafficking of Ugandan nationals to neighbouring East African States like Kenya for various forms of exploitation including labour and sexual exploitation. In addition to the trafficking of Ugandan nationals, nationals of other East African countries are trafficked into Uganda for exploitation in the agricultural sector, sexual exploitation, and domestic service.The Ugandan Government has developed important legislative and policy frameworks to combat human trafficking, but legal and policy gaps persist, and implementation remains inconsistent. This has contributed to Uganda’s Tier 2 Watch List rating on the recently released 2020 USA Trafficking in Persons Report (a rating reserved for countries that do not meet the minimum standards of the United States Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) but are making efforts to do so). 17 This Policy Brief aims to contribute to Uganda’s anti-trafficking efforts by assessing the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human trafficking in Uganda.
This Brief examines how the pandemic could affect victims / survivors of human trafficking and the potential of the pandemic to heighten the risks and vulnerabilities to human trafficking. It further pays specific attention to the impact of COVID-19 on child trafficking, and the possibilities of the pandemic to exacerbate vulnerabilities of Uganda’s refugee population to human trafficking.