Digital technologies against human trafficking: What the case of refugees in Uganda tells us

This year’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons (TIP), marked annually on 30 July, was commemorated under the theme of 'Use and Abuse of Technology.’ First commemorated almost a decade ago, the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons is, per the adopted UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/68/192, meant to “raise awareness of the situation of victims of human trafficking and for the promotion and protection of their rights.”

But how do we raise awareness of the situation of TIP victims and survivors in spaces where identification and documentation of TIP cases remain a colossal challenge? To mention but one important challenge, Uganda has one of the largest refugee populations in the world—topmost in Africa—involving both mass influxes and protracted stays. Moreover, about 60% of these refugees are under 18, with the majority (92%) hosted in rural settlements alongside local communities within conditions of relative deprivation, recently aggravated by grave losses of livelihood and income following the COVID-19 outbreak. Against this contextual backdrop, it is no exaggeration to imagine such cohorts of refugees (male, female and gender-nonconforming, old and young, with visible and invisible disabilities, etc.) and their immediate host communities as constituting themselves fertile ground for TIP. These populations are not computed in the "more than 60 per cent of detected human trafficking victims over the last 15 years [being] women and girls, most of them trafficked for sexual exploitation” noted in the press release by the UNODC Executive Director issued on 30 July 2022.


The recently released US Trafficking in Persons Report (July 2021) has placed Uganda on Tier 2 from Tier 2 Watch List in the past two years. While not yet fully meeting the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking-in-persons, Uganda is making significant efforts. Uganda's efforts reportedly include investigating and prosecuting more trafficking crimes, convicting the most traffickers ever reported in a year, developing robust, standardised operating procedures for law enforcement and increasing training for investigators and prosecutors. Refugee Law Project (RLP) of the School of Law at Makerere University in partnership with the Irish Centre for Human Rights (ICHR) at the National University of Ireland – Galway has, in view of the past three-year research project under the title ‘Human Trafficking, Forced Migration and Gender Equality in Uganda’, contributed to these efforts in no less modest ways. Nonetheless, the challenges of harnessing technology – coupled with the one of countering abuse of technology – in a sophisticated fight against TIP, especially among vulnerable lives online, still looms large.


Digital technologies are increasingly being recognised as tools capable of enabling and impeding TIP. The use of internet-enabled technologies, including social media networks has seen an unprecedent uptake in recent times across so many divides – age, gender, class, legal status, time zones and geographies. Messaging apps like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook and other audio-visual digital channels like YouTube, Instagram, Google Meet and Zoom are becoming humans’ second-nature in broadcasting enormous bits of information and facilitating intense and interactive exchange. This recognition could not be more realised than following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forcibly migrated plenty of human interactions and transactions into virtual spaces. With the great shift to online platforms for humanitarian outreach and service delivery, the often syndicate crime of human trafficking also moved to cyberspace. The eagerness of many asylum seekers to get and keep online via social media – as an escape from the often constrained parameters of life in confined asylum spaces – provides a recipe for cyber criminality and cyber violence, as well as a situation replete with opportunity for tech-enabled TIP. As such, cybercriminals who include digital human traffickers can easily take advantage of vulnerable refugee lives online, not least due to the questionable ethics of how digital platforms are designed and run.


In a recently published study jointly undertaken by the RLP and the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) on social media and inclusion in humanitarian action, it was found that refugees in Uganda—both those in refugee settlements and those self-settled in urban areas—are eager to get and stay connected to the internet through social media platforms, regardless of the challenging context. So are the lives of refugees and their hosts in settings of asylum affected in dynamic ways as communications systems and networks continue to grow, and new social media applications are developed. Some have cherished hopes of social media potentially democratising the humanitarian industry in the field of forced migration. Others have also pointed out that online connectivity can exacerbate protection-related vulnerabilities of forced migrants, already suffering varying instances and degrees of trauma.


The need for establishing appropriate protection channels for beneficiaries (whether forced migrants or their no less vulnerable hosts) who become internet-enabled tech-savvy cannot be overstated, especially when considering the uptake of the systematic use of social media in humanitarian action. Arriving at such protection channels in combating T4TIP would require taking seriously what Oliver Lough urges humanitarians to consider, namely a shift from risk avoidance to risk mitigation as they take on more deliberate approaches to using social media in constantly engaging with their persons-of-concern within different information ecosystems. Doing so with a survivor-centred, trauma-informed, and gender-sensitive approach, bringing together the state (government agencies), the society (non-governmental and civil society entities) and the market (businesses and tech companies) in responsorial partnership, is moreover what may take us on a much more promising fight against T4TIP. As we commemorate this year’s World Day against Trafficking in Persons, re-centring the use and abuse of internet-enabled technologies in the combat against TIP, it is also important to remember that TIP remains a tight-knit networked crime undertaken by purposeful agents acting in a daring and sophisticated manner both online and offline. As such, an equally intentional and purposeful resource investment to curate and analytically oversee digital spaces – sorting the wheat from the chaff and deciphering the subtle from the sensational in the sea of information – is key in bringing down the TIP network


By David N. Tshimba

Senior Research Fellow, Refugee Law Project
with funding support from


Women are at the short end of the Climate Change stick. What can we do about it?

Poor and marginalised groups [including women and girls] have limited ability to cope with climate change impacts according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet, the climate resilience of a society and its ability to change economic processes to achieve greenhouse gas reductions often depend on specific social strata’s adaptive and mitigative capacities.

“Recognising the contribution of women in climate change mitigation, adaptation and response” is Uganda’s national theme for International Women’s Day 2022 and emphasises full acknowledgement of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts made by women, and their exceptional efforts in implementing response strategies.

Why are children being chased away from community-related awareness raising events?

Having worked with Refugee Law Project (RLP), School of Law, Makerere University for two years and in two different refugee settlements – Palabek and now Kiryandongo refugee settlement, I have watched with discomfort how children from 6-15 year of age are often “Chased Away” - sometimes with sticks - during community-related events such as community policing sessions and commemoration of international days that are intended to raise awareness and pass on information. Ironically, this strange practice of ‘chasing’ children away is at times at the hands of humanitarian and development agencies - including some mandated to work directly with children. Such practice leaves a lot to be desired; don’t the actors’ plan and budget for such sessions to include children from the onset?  One may want to know whether, when organizing an information session for instance targeting 150 people, whether this number includes children. Does ‘people’ by default imply ‘adults only’? If we say ‘non-discrimination’ do actors really walk-the-talk? Perhaps contentious, this is what this blog explores.

More often than not, mobilizing and notifying communities about these activities requires the use of megaphones, as the mobilisers drive along the road, loud speakers and music go hand-in-hand with distribution of beautifully designed posters – all of which attract children to run after the vehicles for several minutes if not hours. In the process, children sometimes aid in relaying the information to their parents and caretakers through bringing the posters home and/or talking about the activity being announced. Clearly, the process of dissemination of messages through the moving caravans during mobilization does not discriminate against children. At this stage, the communiqués passed are inclusive. Words/phrases such as “Come One, Come All” are common.

D-day is usually not any different as it is characterized by loud music and sounds used to attract the audience. Children often come earlier than adults and sometimes even offer to help by carrying and arranging chairs and tables. Ironically, as adults emerge and come to occupy their seats, children end up being instruments of arrangements and mobilization after which they are “Chased”, and sometimes with sticks, by the “Askaris” of the day tasked with crowd control.

Such occasions propel me to ask; Do organizations plan and prepare messages and resources including refreshments for children attending such community events? It is not unusual - and I have myself witnessed this in both Kiryandongo and Palabek settlements - , for ‘refreshments’ to be served to adult participants only despite children being in attendance. Unconsumed bites and drinks are often returned to the stores for accountability purposes. In addition to the discriminatory serving of drinks and bites, it is also typical of such events for the chairs to be reserved for the adults only. It is saddening to watch children sitting on the bare ground as if they are not in attendance. And are children all treated the same? Definitely not! I have seen, on more than one occasion, children invited from schools and donning school uniforms being treated rather differently, and actually in a rather more friendly manner than those not in school uniforms. In other words, the non-school going children in attendance are further marginalized. To make it worse, only few people seem to observe this with dissatisfaction or bother to ask why some of these children are not in school in the first place.

What does this mean for actors concerned about child protection and safeguarding? Clearly, a number of children continue to be excluded from public events as well as community-related planning and programming. Secondly, excluding children from accessing appropriate information is further discrimination, and violation of the right to information. We might argue that age-appropriate information needs to be provided to children and they should acquire them from homes and schools - but such arguments ignore the numerous reasons why children in the refugee settlements are out of school; parents unable to afford the scholastic materials to support the Universal Primary Education and Universal Secondary Education systems; child headed families; total orphans, and unaccompanied minors during war times. It further ignores drunkard parents who are unable to take time with their children. And does the current education system include the kind of information delivered during such sessions? If so, how will rule of law actors address the increasing cases of child delinquency - including cases of “child-to-child sex” – particularly given the very limited number of remand homes in Uganda.

Through this blog, I question the least thought about, because I strongly believe that silence on an issue is not far from perpetration. Some of us perhaps grew up in very different contexts decades back but that doesn’t mean we should blind ourselves to contemporary challenges facing children. If anything, it’s clearer than ever that children are not passive recipients of aid and information – they too are active participants in causing transformation in their lives and their society. The recent cases of children crowding streets in various countries in protest against environmental destruction should awaken us to the fact that children are the legitimate leaders of the future, and as such, we ought to perhaps keep them in the loop of conversations especially those that concern them and their futures.

How can we sustain the gains on gender equality for all? Reflections from Adjumani District

International Women's Day (IWD) has been observed for many decades. The institution of the day was driven by the universal female suffrage movement that began in New Zealand and was later propelled by the labour movements in North America and Europe during the early 20th Century.

This year's theme, "Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow", anchors on enhancing gender equality for all as a precursor for achieving a sustainable future within the framework of Sustainable Development Goals. Like in preceding years, Uganda joins many other countries to commemorate women's cultural, political, and socio-economic achievements.

The Loud Silence: The plight of refugee male survivors of conflict-related sexual violence

The Loud Silence: The plight of refugee male survivors of conflict-related sexual violence

 “At first I even never told the doctor about what happened to me, because it is not easy to talk about it...” – Male survivor of conflict-related sexual violence based in Kampala.

Sexual violence against men and boys is not a new phenomenon in many parts of the world, especially in war zones and post-conflict communities but, surprisingly, the vice has continued to receive very little attention and recognition both at policy and program levels. Additionally, the many legal jurisdictions have narrow definitions of sexual violence offenses that recognise female counterparts, but not male victims. 

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