Freetown, Sierra Leone – Zainab – last name withheld – sits in a dimly lit office in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown, plugs a number into her phone, and inhales sharply. A man picks up after two rings.
“I hear you are offering jobs in Lebanon,” the 29-year-old Sierra Leonean social worker tells him. “Life is so hard here, I want to get out. Can you help?”
The man gives her an address in Waterloo, a densely populated town 32km (20 miles) south of Freetown, and tells her to bring 3 million Leones ($150) as an initial downpayment. She hangs up and dials a contact at the Transnational Organised Crime Unit, a police division trained by the US embassy to catch human traffickers.
“It can be difficult to reach the perpetrator,” Emmanuel Cole, head of the unit, told local media. “Sometimes we lure them to us by making them believe someone is interested in their programme.”
It is not the first time that Zainab has helped to set up an undercover sting. Four years ago she was trafficked to Oman. Since escaping a family home where she was forced to work for free and was sexually assaulted, she has made it her mission to help others who might also be tricked into going abroad.
“I try not to be afraid,” she says. “I know I am doing the right thing.”
A worsening problem
Human trafficking is classed as using force, coercion or fraud to send someone to a new destination, to profit from them. While official data is scant, experts say the problem is rife in Sierra Leone.
With youth unemployment at nearly 60 percent and the majority of the population surviving on less than $3 a day, there are thousands of people for traffickers to prey on, who long for better opportunities overseas. They often target women, touting well-paid jobs in the Middle East.
“You are sold a lifestyle,” says Vani Saraswathi of Migrant Rights, a Qatar-based advocacy group.
The agents offer jobs as nannies, hairdressers, maids or shop assistants in countries including Lebanon, Oman, Dubai, Kuwait and Turkey. But when their clients arrive in the destination country, their passports are often seized and they are forced into unpaid labour in people’s houses. Many young women report being sexually abused.
“They said I was a slave and didn’t need to be paid,” says one woman who went to Oman to work as a maid, “when we were alone in the house, the man would have sex with me, he held a knife to my throat and said he’d cut me if I screamed”.
Those monitoring the problem say it is getting worse. “I see an increase,” says Christos Christodoulides, head of the UN Migration Agency in Sierra Leone. “The vulnerability has increased too.”
While some victims of human trafficking manage to escape, many stay locked in gruesome situations for years. Ninety-nine percent of the 469 Sierra Leonean domestic workers in Oman, interviewed in the last two years by the non-profit Do Bold, said they had been trafficked. A third of them reported being sexually abused.
Climate change is exacerbating the problem. Sierra Leone is ranked in the top 10 percent of countries vulnerable to climate change despite having contributed just 0.003 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions since 1950.
A third of its population lives on the coast, making their homes vulnerable to worsening floods. Some of the country’s islands are going underwater, forcing residents onto ever-shrinking sandbanks.
There is a “serious increase” in the number of people who have been trafficked after their houses have been destroyed by floods or mudslides, says Sheku Bangura, who runs the Advocacy Network Against Irregular Migration (ANAIM) that supports returnee migrants and helped rescue Zainab from Oman.
Each year, flash floods tear through Freetown, ripping down houses and killing civilians. The city recorded more than 400 floods in 2021 and 2022, which resulted in hundreds of casualties. After heavy rains last summer, torrents of muddy water poured into ground floor wards at Connaught, the country’s biggest hospital, damaging equipment and putting patients at risk.
Bad harvests brought on by unpredictable rainfall are driving farmers into the city, where overcrowded settlements on precipitous hillsides are increasingly vulnerable to mudslides. In 2017, after unusually heavy rain, a mountaintop collapsed on the settlement below it, killing over 1,000 people as they slept.
‘They used shovels to hit us’
Saccoh Kamara was trafficked to Dubai shortly after a mudslide tore through his house, killing his father and three-year-old son.
Early in the morning on August 14, 2017, Kamara returned from work at a construction site to find his village had been buried in mud and rubble. The mudslide happened at around 6am when his son and father had been asleep inside the house.
“We never recovered their bodies,” he says.
After a fortnight in hospital where he was treated for shock, Kamara, now 36, began to rebuild his life, moving in with a cousin on Freetown’s waterfront. When that house was also destroyed in floods—increasingly common as sea levels rise—he decided to leave Sierra Leone for good.
A trafficker promised him lucrative work on a supermarket checkout in Dubai. Instead, he was put to work, unpaid, in a frozen food warehouse. Imprisoned there for seven months, he worked around the clock, resting for just an hour at a time on the floor in a corner.
“They used shovels to hit us,” Kamara says. “When I wanted to rest they would come and beat me.”
After escaping and being deported back to Sierra Leone, Kamara started volunteering at ANAIM, Bangura’s advocacy group, trying to prevent others from falling victim to predatory traffickers.
Before leaving the police station on the back of a motorbike driven by an undercover policeman, Zainab dons a large pair of sunglasses.
“I don’t want him to remember me,” she says.
As they reach the meeting point, four more policemen, two of them armed with Kalashnikovs, wait in a van nearby. Soon a slight man in his forties approaches Zainab on foot. She tells him she is struggling to pay school fees for her younger siblings and that she got his number from a friend, Adama – whom she knows was tricked into unpaid labour in Lebanon. The man nods sympathetically and says he can help: He sent 18-year-old Adama to Beirut last year.
This is enough for Zainab who presses the call button on her phone inside her pocket. Moments later, she turns away as the policemen rush from their hiding place to seize the trafficker, frightened he will remember her face.
Since Sierra Leone passed a new law in 2022 introducing a minimum sentence of 25 years for anyone convicted of human trafficking, dozens of agents have been arrested. However, just three have been convicted – and one of them was acquitted shortly afterwards. Traffickers often bribe their way out of jail or call on political contacts to pull strings.
In the absence of a robust justice system, “the best prevention is education so that people ask the right questions when they are offered a job”, says Saraswathi of Migrant Rights.
Yet even education carries risks. Bangura’s ANAIM hosts a weekly radio show in which returnees tell cautionary tales of being trafficked. In one episode, he implored victims to come forward with details of traffickers, implying that he already had a database of agents. The next night his office door was broken down and two computers stolen.
“I feel we are fighting an endless battle,” Bangura says. “But I have committed to fight it.”