Social Media & Rescuing Trafficked Migrants: A case study

In recent months, there has been much attention on the thousands of migrants and refugees transiting through Libya and departing by boat in the hope of crossing the Mediterranean and reaching Europe. Details of migrant/refugees’ specific cases reveal that while the crossing itself can result in fatalities (over 3,000 in 2014 according to IOM), the land crossing from countries of origins to the seaboard (for departure) expose migrant/refugees to dangers from smugglers, traffickers and other criminal groups – often with collusion by state officials.

While Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis may deliberately target Libya as a way to reach Europe, there are others who find themselves caught up in conflict and become stranded or are recruited by local smugglers to ‘try their luck’ on the boats heading for Europe. Libya itself also used to be a major destination within the continent for regular labour migration (estimated at over 1 million in early 2011), but since 2011 internal instability has greatly increased risks to all migrants in Libya (see Going West). A recent case of Kenyan migrant workers stranded in Libya highlights the complex situation on the ground and the way that agencies are responding to their needs.

Although Kenya is the ninth-largest economy in Africa and is classified as a middle-income country, unemployment is high (40%) and a significant number of skilled and unskilled Kenyans migrate overseas in the hope of finding work in the domestic sector.[1]

When migrant workers migrate irregularly, or using private agencies, they can be subject to abuse and exploitation. In many cases, irrespective of their mode of travel, migrant workers face non-payment of salaries, physical, psychological and/or some form of sexual abuse. Female migrant workers are especially vulnerable to gender based violence at the hands of their employers, which often goes unreported due to fear of repercussions and loss of income.[2] The case of one group of women that is described below illustrates this case. Amongst other issues, this case illustrates the special effectiveness of social media to assist people in distress.

In July 2014 a Nairobi-based NGO, Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART), received a Facebook message from a young Kenyan woman working as a domestic worker in Libya requesting assistance in evacuating a fellow Kenyan also working as a domestic worker who was allegedly being mistreated by her employer. Violence and insecurity in Libya caused the Kenyan embassy in Tripoli to close in July 2014. Consequently, the Kenyan labour migrant needed to find alternative ways to leave the country. It quickly turned out through the ensuing communication that this was not an isolated case, but there were in fact several Kenyan women stuck in Libya unable to return home. Initially there appeared to be 16 women but the group grew when some other Kenyan women found out about the repatriation and managed to join the group. The group grew into 31 women. Most of them escaped the homes that they were working in because they received a WhatsApp message that there was a possibility that they could return to Kenya. HAART worked with the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) to assist the women to return home. IOM, with the help of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, processed exit visas for the women because their employers retained their passports (as is common practice for domestic workers in many African and Gulf countries). However due to the prevailing security situation, a decision was reached to use an indirect route out of Libya, using a bus to travel to Tunisia and thereafter a flight to Kenya. Unfortunately, officials at the Libya/Tunisia border refused to allow the women to cross the border and they had to make the trip back to Tripoli. A week later the women were finally able to leave Libya, where they were received by HAART and IOM staff at the airport. They were taken to a shelter for assistance and support; such an arduous journey compounding the suffering they had experienced in Libya.

After reviewing their cases, it was discovered that all of the women were victims of human trafficking and many of the women were not first time migrants. They had gone through the same situation in different countries but chose to try their luck again because of dire economic situations and their search for livelihoods. After attending a Safe Migration training with HAART, only three said they would be willing to take the risk and travel again under the similar circumstances. But as research has shown, also recently in RMMS studies, many women and men continue to make irregular journeys to foreign countries for work and assess the benefits of employment to far outweigh the risks of the journey. [3]

In order to address the exploitation of migrant domestic workers, HAART joins with others recommending stronger regulation and monitoring of recruitment agencies at a national level. Whilst Kenya passed the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Act 2010, there have been few successful prosecutions due to the high threshold of evidence required. [4] Another issue is the way that agents, in collaboration with traffickers, operate. Out of the 31 women rescued from Libya, 16 girls from were recruited by one agency. There is evidence of bad contracts, abuses by the receiving agents and neglect of victims after they get into trouble, yet none of the evidence presented can be used to successfully prosecute these agents. With agencies simply closing to avoid prosecution, there is a need to raise general awareness about trafficking and safe migration so potential migrants are informed about risks.

This particular case highlights the crucial role that social media can and does play in migrants’ lives. Apart from being a tool used for connecting with friends and family globally, social media is also being used as a recruitment tool for traffickers to reach out to vulnerable people around the globe. However HAART was able to use it to communicate with the Kenyan women in Libya from the moment it received information about their situation until the women arrived in Nairobi. For example, the free mobile telephone message application, WhatsApp, was used because the women had formed groups to discuss the issues that they were going through in Libya and how to get out.

What also emerged from this mission was the role of cooperation among organizations in the fight against human trafficking. The success of the operation was a result of networking at the local level amongst members of the Kenya Mixed Migration Task Force (MMTFK) which provided HAART and IOM with a platform to meet and exchange contacts. In this case, the network of agencies with similar objectives and concerns combined with the power of social media sites created contact and facilitated a positive response that would previously been unimaginable in a ‘closed’ and distant country that is undergoing significant civil upheaval and conflict.

[1] US Department of State (2012) Trafficking in Persons Report: Kenya. Washington D.C.: US Department of State; Trading Economics (2015) Kenya Unemployment Rate. Available at Trading Economics website

[2] For more on this see for example  Mghenyi, C. (2014) Kenya: woman stranded in Middle East returns home ; Migiro, K. (2014) Kenyan domestic worker stabbed, burned by Saudi employer-report; Yaa, E. (2015) Kenya: Two women are stuck in Saudi

[3] See RMMS Report, Blinded by Hope: Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices of Ethiopian migrants (June 2014)

[4]  The Guardian (2014) Kenya passes law to step up fight against human trafficking. Available See also RMMS Report, Mixed Migration in Kenya: the scale of movement and associated protection risks (June 2013)

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.