Africa is a vast and diverse region that accounts for 17 per cent of the world’s population. Modern slavery in Africa is driven by ongoing political instability, poverty, displacement of people due to conflict and climate change, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Modern slavery manifests differently throughout Africa; it occurs in every country in the region, while those with higher prevalence typically experience compounding vulnerability factors. More than 3.1 million Africans are in forced marriage, the drivers of which depend on factors in their location, such as the presence of conflict, poverty, or persistence of certain traditional practices. There are more than 3.8 million people in forced labour across Africa. At particularly high risk are adults and children who travel from rural and remote areas to urban centres seeking work. Higher rates of descent-based slavery and forced begging continue to occur in parts of the Sahel.
Over the past four years, many African countries have taken actions to improve their response to modern slavery. Nigeria and South Africa have taken the most action, while Eritrea and Libya have taken the least. South Sudan was excluded from the assessment of government action on modern slavery due to ongoing conflict and extreme disruption to government function. Much more needs to be done to provide support for survivors, strengthen laws to protect people, and develop national strategies to combat modern slavery.
What is the extent and nature of modern slavery in the region?
On any given day in 2021, an estimated 7 million men, women, and children were living in modern slavery in Africa, a prevalence of 5.2 people in modern slavery for every thousand people. Africa had the fourth highest prevalence of modern slavery among the five regions of the world, following the Arab States (10.1 per thousand), Europe and Central Asia (6.9), and Asia and the Pacific (6.8). Forced labour was the most common form of modern slavery in the region, at a rate of 2.9 per thousand people, while forced marriage was at 2.4 per thousand.
When considering the total number of people in forced marriage worldwide, 13 per cent (3.2 million) were in Africa, second to Asia and the Pacific, which at 65 per cent has by far the highest share of the world’s forced marriages. Fourteen per cent of all people in forced labour were in Africa (3.8 million), the third highest behind Asia and the Pacific (55 per cent) and Europe and Central Asia (15 per cent).
The countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery in Africa are Eritrea, Mauritania, and South Sudan. The countries with the lowest prevalence of modern slavery in Africa are Mauritius, Lesotho, and Botswana.
Nearly 4 million men, women, and children experience forced labour in Africa, particularly in the mining, agriculture, fishing, and domestic work sectors.1 African job seekers misled by traffickers with false promises are subjected to forced labour abroad, such as in the Gulf states.2 Children are also exploited in their pursuit of education. For example, under the confiage (trust) system in Togo, children from rural areas are sent to cities to complete their education and live with relatives, who may force them into domestic servitude.3 Nigerian girls seeking employment as domestic helpers to help pay for schooling are also subjected to domestic servitude.4 In Senegal, talibe (student, seeker) children in Quranic schools are forced to beg.5
In Africa, forced marriage particularly impacts women and girls. One in every 300 females in the region was in a forced marriage compared to one in every thousand males.6 In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, reports of child marriages increased in Sudan, Egypt,7 and parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC),8 and they nearly doubled in communities across Senegal and Uganda.9 Women and girls living in conflict zones also experience forced and child marriage, including as a negative coping mechanism by families to protect them from further violence10 and by fighters who abduct, marry, and exploit women and girls as domestic and sexual slaves.11 Forced commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls is used as a weapon of war by both state and non-state groups, reportedly in the Central African Republic, the DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan,12 and by both parties to the civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.13
“My father introduced me to husbands since I was twelve.” Sudanese female on her forced marriage at age 17
Although these figures are the most reliable to date, they are conservative estimates given the gaps and limitations of data collection in Africa. It is not possible to conduct nationally representative surveys in countries experiencing profound conflict, which leads to an underestimate of forms of modern slavery such as the recruitment of child soldiers. Despite gaps in data, reports indicate children have been recruited into armed groups in the DRC, Mali, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Nigeria, Libya, South Sudan, Sudan, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Somalia.14
Table 1: Estimated prevalence and number of people in modern slavery, by country
|Regional rank||Country||Est. prevalence of modern slavery (per 1,000 population)||Est. number of people in modern slavery||Population|
|4||Republic of the Congo||8.0||44,000||5,518,000|
|17||Central African Republic||5.2||25,000||4,830,000|
|25||Democratic Republic of the Congo||4.5||407,000||89,561,000|
What drives vulnerability to modern slavery in the region?
Figure 1: Level of vulnerability to modern slavery, by dimension
Africa has the highest vulnerability to modern slavery of all regions and is home to the four most vulnerable countries: South Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic, and the DRC (Table 2). Mauritius had the lowest vulnerability in the region. The largest driver of vulnerability was discrimination towards migrants and minority cultural and ethnic groups. Common to the most vulnerable countries are issues such as conflict, political instability, mass displacement, and poverty. The impacts of COVID-19 have compounded risk of modern slavery across the region.
Vulnerability to modern slavery was driven by a higher risk of discrimination on the basis of migration status, race, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation. Contemporary reports of slavery exist in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and Sudan, where people, often from minority ethnic groups, are born into slavery and bought, traded, and sold.15 In Mauritania, Niger, and Mali, widespread ethnic or caste-based discrimination manifests in descent-based slavery.16 In Mauritania, for example, slavery tends to follow racial lines, as black Haratine people are typically forced to work for the lighter-skinned “white Moor” community in agriculture and domestic work.17 Despite some legal reforms, the practice of Wahaya (put in the bedroom) continues in northern Nigeria and Niger, where girls born into slavery are sold as a “fifth wife” and subjected to domestic and sexual servitude.18
Some countries in the region continued to exhibit political instability, weak rule of law, and corruption, all of which increase the risk of modern slavery. Overall, governance issues were the second greatest driver of vulnerability in the region. South Sudan and Somalia have faced violent clashes and political instability.19 From 2020 to early 2022, there have been multiple military takeovers in the region: in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan,20 in addition to failed military coups in Niger and Guinea-Bissau.21 This political unrest can cause displacement and disrupt national responses to modern slavery, putting people at higher risk.
Poverty and economic inequality drive vulnerability in the Africa region. Thirty-five per cent of people in Sub-Saharan Africa live in poverty.22 Poverty can drive desperate families to marry off daughters to reduce household costs and generate an income through obtaining a bride dowry.23 Families living in extreme poverty may also require their children to enter the workforce. In 2020, there were more child labourers in Sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world combined.24 Widespread child labour increases the risk of the worst forms of child labour.25 Poverty and limited job opportunities in Africa also drive migration, which increases risk of exploitation by labour recruiters.26 This migration is predominantly intra-regional and marked by the movement of low-skilled workers, particularly in sectors characterised by high demand such as agriculture, aquaculture, construction, resource extraction, and domestic work.27
Compared to other regions, parts of Africa are heavily impacted by conflict. At the end of 2020 there were more than 24 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sub-Saharan Africa, most of whom were displaced due to conflict and violence.28 In Nigeria, the DRC, and South Sudan, modern slavery and related abuses were not only prevalent among IDPs but were inextricably linked to conflict. Perpetrators of slavery-related abuses were largely members of the armed groups or armed forces who deliberately exploited displaced populations to further their conflict-related operations.29 Risks also persist within IDP camps. For example, some camps in Eastern Sudan have decreased security, thereby becoming targets for traffickers.30 The number of people displaced from their homes will only increase further with climate change. It is estimated that without any action on climate change there will be 86 million internal climate migrants in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050.31 Displaced populations are highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
“When [armed group] kidnapped me, I was forced to marry one of their leaders.” Nigerian female on her forced marriage at age 28
Table 2: Level of vulnerability to modern slavery, by country
|Central African Republic||98|
|Democratic Republic of the Congo||94|
|Republic of the Congo||77|
What are governments in the region doing to address modern slavery?
Walk Free assessed government responses to modern slavery in 51 countries in the region. Governments across the region scored an average of 36 per cent, the weakest average response of all regions. Overall, while governments improved identification measures and legal frameworks, gaps in services available to survivors remained and only limited action has been taken to address systemic risk factors to modern slavery. While three countries have identified and taken action with high-risk sectors to address modern slavery, no country has taken further action to combat modern slavery in government and business supply chains. South Sudan was excluded from the assessment of government action on modern slavery due to ongoing conflict and extreme disruption to government function.
GDP per capita PPP (current international $) varies widely across the region. Of the four countries with the strongest responses (Nigeria, South Africa, Rwanda, and Tunisia — see Table 3), it varies from US$2,494 in Rwanda to a high of US$14,420 in South Africa.32 Relative to their wealth, both Nigeria and Rwanda are outperforming their wealthiest neighbours in Africa, such as Seychelles, Libya, Mauritius, Equatorial Guinea, and Botswana.33 Given Rwanda has the lowest GDP per capita of all four countries, but with relatively strong government responses to modern slavery, it is outperforming all countries in the region on action taken to address modern slavery relative to its wealth.
Nigeria (54 per cent), South Africa (53 per cent), and Rwanda (50 per cent) have the strongest responses to modern slavery in the region. Nigeria and South Africa both strongly address risk factors to modern slavery and provide adequate protection to citizens overseas.
Eritrea has the weakest government response to modern slavery in Africa and the second weakest response globally (5 per cent), followed by Libya (10 per cent). Eritrea’s and Libya’s responses are undermined by state-imposed forced labour. Eritrean citizens aged 18 to 40 years are forced into labour indefinitely in the government’s compulsory national service scheme.34 They are threatened with torture, prison, or harm to their family members for refusing to comply.35 In Libya, migrants continue to be trafficked and sold in “slave markets” where they are then tortured for ransom or exploited in forced labour.36 In some instances, the only way out of detention centres for migrants is to be sold to employers.37
Many countries in Africa have taken action to improve their response to modern slavery since our 2018 assessment. Angola introduced the National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings and allocated funding and support to the operation of shelters.38 Namibia implemented a National Referral Mechanism and provided police and immigration officials with pocket manuals on procedures.39 The National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking and Similar Practices in Guinea introduced standard operating procedures for victim identification and referral, however it is unclear if these procedures have been operationalised.40
“After I reported them to Labour, they bribed someone who works at Labour and I was told to return to work.” 29-year-old female domestic worker in Botswana
No country in Africa has fully criminalised all forms of modern slavery, yet legal frameworks have improved in Africa over the last four years. For example, during this period the ILO Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 has entered into force in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Madagascar, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Côte d’Ivoire.41 Further, the Republic of the Congo criminalised human trafficking in domestic legislation in 2019.42 Encouragingly, 48 out of 51 governments we assessed have provided basic training on victim identification to general police. Only Mauritania, Libya, and Sudan have not.
“Governments should be providing training to government officials, public awareness campaigns, outreach education and advocacy campaigns, and prosecute human trafficking by providing training and technical assistance for law enforcement officials such as police.” Survivor of modern slavery, Kenya, 2020
The coordination of modern slavery responses has shown some improvement across the region. While 12 countries in the region introduced or implemented National Action Plans (NAPs) to address modern slavery over the past four years, three countries failed to renew their previous plans, and 10 countries remained without formal strategies to combat any form of modern slavery. Only nine of the 41 countries with NAPs, have fully funded the activities within those plans (Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Cabo Verde, Eswatini, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, and Mali). Just under half of the governments we assessed in Africa ensure services are provided to all survivors of modern slavery and 28 governments ensure child-friendly services are provided. In Kenya, five child protection centres provide child trafficking and child labour survivors with specialised services.43
Risk factors such as attitudes, social systems, and institutions that enable modern slavery are weakly addressed in the region. There are only five countries in Africa where all children have access to birth registration systems and where over 95 per cent have a registered birth certificate (Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Republic of the Congo, and Algeria). No government in the region ensures universal access to healthcare. Further, children under the age of 18 can legally marry in all countries except Côte d’Ivoire, the DRC, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. A draft bill in Somalia was proposed in August 2020 that allowed minors to marry based on reproductive maturity, independent of age.44 While the bill was ultimately not passed, it reveals a backwards step in terms of gender equality. Systems are in place that allow asylum seekers to seek protection in 22 countries in the region. No country in Northern Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia) has appropriate systems in place for those seeking to flee humanitarian crises, despite the subregion being a regular migration route. The Libyan and Egyptian coastguards are supported by the European Union to intercept those fleeing and return them to Libya and Egypt where there is evidence of systemic discrimination, arrest, detention, and deportation. In Libya, migrants are additionally vulnerable to being bought and sold in slave markets.45 Corruption and complicity also impede efforts to combat modern slavery in 36 out of the 51 countries. In Libya, officials working for coastguard, defence, immigration, and security authorities commit modern slavery crimes without fear of investigation or consequence.46 In addition, state-imposed forced labour reportedly occurs in Libya,47 Eritrea,48 Egypt,49 Mali,50 Rwanda,51 and Zimbabwe.52
“The government should be aware of the people migrating, know the reasons why they are migrating, ensure that the contracts and agreements made are valid, and ensure safety and work with the family to know that the migrant is safe.” Survivor of modern slavery, Kenya, 2020
Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and more recently the DRC are the only countries in the region that have identified high-risk sectors and have taken action to eradicate modern slavery within supply chains. Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire are part of the Harkin-Engel Protocol to combat child labour in the cocoa sector,53 while in 2019 the DRC created a regulatory authority to tackle child labour in cobalt and coltan mines.54 However, governments in Africa have not taken broader action such as the introduction of legislation or human rights due diligence laws to ensure government and businesses stop sourcing goods and services produced by forced labour.
Table 3: Government response score, by country and milestone
|Country||Survivors identified and supported (%)||Criminal justice mechanisms (%)||National and regional level coordination (%)||Risk factors are addressed (%)||Government and business supply chains (%)||Total (%)|
|Democratic Republic of the Congo||32||42||50||36||13||36|
|Republic of the Congo||41||27||38||21||0||28|
|Central African Republic||23||42||25||21||0||27|
Recommendations for governments
Ensure support services are available for all survivors of modern slavery — women, men, and children — and that these support services are appropriately resourced.
The governments of Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mali, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe should immediately end state-imposed forced labour by repealing legislation and criminalising practices that allow it to occur.
Raise the minimum legal age of marriage to 18 without exception and support the economic empowerment of women and girls through increasing access to education and providing community empowerment programming.
Strengthen social protections, such as birth registration, access to education, unemployment insurance, universal healthcare, and sick leave to reduce vulnerability to forced marriage and to provide workers with basic income security. Extend social protection to workers in the informal sector in particular.
Identify sectors at high risk of forced labour and work with businesses and civil society to develop initiatives to eradicate forced labour and labour exploitation.