Situated in northwest Africa in the Sahel region, Mali is a nation in which major trade routes have historically converged. Unfortunately, local criminal networks have taken advantage of these routes. They have been used not only for the movement of goods and services but also for the transport of drugs, weapons, and people.
Under French colonial rule, Mali abolished the internal African slave trade in 1905. However, human trafficking has allowed forced recruitment and labour of Malians, migrants, and refugees in the region to this day. As Mali has become a regional hub for both transiting migrants and traffickers, human trafficking is an issue the international community should be concerned about, as it puts vulnerable individuals, including children and refugees, at risk of becoming victims.
The trade routes through Mali have been historically significant since the emergence of the Mali Empire from 1240-1645 CE. The empire gained wealth through the control of regional trade routes, bridging trade between North and West Africa and the rest of the continent. Additionally, the spread of Islam can also be contributed to these trade routes.
The trade routes through Mali were also used for the slave-trade for hundreds of years. During the height of the Roman Empire, these routes were used to transport people from sub-Saharan Africa to be slaves in Rome. Arab slave-trading was also a big industry, which existed even before the spread of Islam in Africa, and included enslaving Africans for labour or trading them for goods.
Historically, the ethnic divisions and perceived racial identities in Mali encouraged slavery. Tuaregs and Arabs, which make up about 10% of Mali’s population today, considered themselves as “white” and the rest of Malians as “black.” The establishment of this perceived racial hierarchy led members of the Malian-Arab population to enslave and trade the Malians they regarded as “black.” Once the European powers got involved beginning in the 15th century, slave trade through Western Africa increased and Black Africans were further exploited.
Today, Mali continues to host tens of thousands of people caught in what is called “descent-based slavery.” These people are considered slaves because their ancestors were owned by elites and as such, their descendants are still considered property. While this is prevalent throughout Mali, it is most common among the Tuareg and Fulani communities in the central and northern regions of the country. Descent-based slaves are subject to discrimination, abuse, and unpaid labour. The practice is hidden and thus unregulated by the government.
The continued practice of slavery and trafficking is not only a product of maintained cultural norms, but it is directly related to the fragile economic situation in Mali which is a result of exploitation by colonial powers, contemporary neoliberal policies under the IMF, and climate change. France colonized and incorporated Mali into the French Sudan in the late 19th century. After six decades, Mali gained independence in 1960 but like many decolonized countries, it has struggled to counter the deep-rooted colonial legacies.
During France’s rule, the economy was structured to promote European wealth and prosperity, causing the economy to be extractive and outward-looking. Mali produced goods beneficial to France, such as cotton and peanuts. After gaining independence, Malian leaders inherited an economy that prioritized the production of cheap raw materials for export which thus contributed to extreme inequalities domestically. Moreover, one of Mali’s biggest obstacles for current economic development is its lack of infrastructure, which can also be traced back to its colonial era. The limited infrastructure that was built under French rule had the primary focus of trade roads to the sea rather than the development of the country.
With few other options, Mali had agreed to many deals with the IMF since independence, which come with “structural adjustment” policies that consist of increased privatization and democratization regardless of what would be the best for the borrowing country. The loans are expected to be paid back with extremely high interest rates. As decentralization occurred as a result of these policies, a new criminal class emerged in Mali who were distributing the profits from human trafficking. As the West was more focused on the “success” of Mali’s democratization, they were blind to the increasing crime weakening the state. Criminal groups got stronger and the government’s ability to provide security in the northern regions decreased, correlating to an increase in human trafficking and other forms of crime.
Today, Mali’s economy is centered around agriculture. This reliance on agriculture could further hurt the country’s economic prospects as the land-locked country is at risk of experiencing the worst effects of climate change. Droughts, variable rainfall, increasing temperatures, and extreme weather disasters will further hurt Mali’s economy and destroy the limited infrastructure available. The slow pace of development in Mali is a major factor behind the high rates of human trafficking, as poverty, lack of education, demand for cheap labour, and poor legitimate economic opportunities all encourage people to turn to illicit activities to sustain their livelihoods.
Human Trafficking in Mali
As many African peoples fleeing their homes to find refuge in Europe go through Mali on their way to Algeria and Libya, Mali is considered a “migrant hub” of West Africa. A lot of the migration through the country is irregular migration —not monitored by the state — so it is difficult to keep track of the number of people travelling through Mali each year. Still, estimates have been in the tens of thousands. Human traffickers tend to target migrants, as they often have little financial support and are emotionally vulnerable, making them easier to take advantage of.
Over the past decade, emerging terrorist groups have become active in northern Mali, including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), an Islamist extremist group with prior connections to al-Qaeda. As the Malian economy is weak and the current job market is poor, regional militant groups have turned to illicit practices to finance their operations, including human trafficking of Malians and transiting migrants. Traffickers consist of militant groups, organized criminal groups, and even state authorities, community members, and sometimes even families that sell their children.
In general, boys who are victims of human trafficking perform forced labour in agriculture, artisanal gold mines, domestic work, transportation, the informal commercial sector, and salt mines in Mali and neighbouring countries of Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea. Malian children have also been coerced into forced labour on Côte d’Ivoire’s cotton and cocoa farms. Locally-based terrorist groups have recently turned to the forced recruitment of boys for combat purposes too.
On the other hand, women and girls are subject to sex trafficking, which is not unique to Mali but a major issue in West African countries. Many victims are recruited with promises of work such as nursing. As of January 2019, the Nigerian government estimated that over 20,000 women and girls were involved in sex trafficking throughout Mali. Besides sex work, they are also forced to do domestic work, agricultural work, and support work in the mines.
As COVID-19 has worsened economic conditions in Mali, the rates of human trafficking have increased, particularly among children. The pandemic forced schools to close down for some time, pushing children into child labour jobs—making them more vulnerable to forced recruitment. The UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection stated that because of the deterioration of the region’s socio-economic conditions due to the pandemic, human rights violations are progressively worsening in the Sahel.
Moreover, in March and April 2020, controversial parliamentary elections caused the eruption of protests in the following months. This led to a military coup in August 2020, showing the instability of Mali’s government and political system. Due to the increase in militant groups such as armed Islamic groups, ethnic militias, and government forces, there are widespread human rights abuses throughout the country that are getting worse. Government corruption has hindered the Malian authorities’ ability to properly address the poor security and economic situation, both underlying causes of human trafficking. The justice system and rule of law in the country are also weak, affecting the government’s ability to enforce the abolishment of slavery and human trafficking.
Addressing the Issue
To create a comprehensive and sustainable solution, it needs to be multifaceted and integrated across many different sectors, including the Malian government, humanitarian organizations, and the international community. These institutions should work together to build a prevention and protection plan to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Currently, Mali is a signatory to many national and international conventions against both slavery and human trafficking. However, there is no explicit law in the country against slavery, and the Malian government has refused to acknowledge the occurrence of slavery and trafficking in the country. The government needs to overcome its trend of being silent on the issue and make a public effort to combat it. While in 2018 Mali passed the 2018-2022 National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons, there has been a lack of coordination in implementing it and thus limited effectiveness. Training officials in anti-trafficking practices across different sectors, including the military, law enforcement, and the justice system, would also improve the government’s response.
As the increase in conflict in Mali has correlated with the increase in human trafficking, official governing bodies should prioritize these factors. There have been calls for security sector reform, including increasing the transparency and accountability of the military which would lead to a decrease in human rights abuses. Further, security sector reform would benefit the government’s effectiveness at protecting the population against non-state armed groups. Additional measures should also be put in place to protect vulnerable populations in the country, including migrants, refugees, and women and children. More funding and resources should be allocated towards investigating and prosecuting those convicted of human trafficking and anti-trafficking efforts across levels of government.
To address the underlying economic factors, Mali should diversify its economy so it relies less on agriculture. Economic diversification has many benefits, such as less impact from external shocks and more sustainable growth. There should also be an increased investment in the country’s development to reduce poverty rates. Lastly, the government needs to address the unequal power structures that persist from colonialism. This will not be an easy process, but in the long-term, it will allow further growth and development of the economy, which would diminish the reliance on crime for peoples’ incomes.
As human trafficking is a transnational crime, it can prolong conflicts, increase instability and insecurity in a region, hinder national development, and severely affect the civilian population. Human traffickers target the most vulnerable populations, those who have little ability to protect themselves; the Malian government with the help of the international community should act urgently to address this issue.
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