With over 97 million people, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the latest entrant into the East African Community. DRC is also the second-largest country in Africa. The country’s rich natural resources, such as copper, diamonds, and cobalt (to name but a few), have kept DRC’s economy afloat for decades and facilitated alliances with other nations.
DRC is a source and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to trafficking in Persons (TIP). Human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims as well as exploiting victims from the DRC abroad. Most human trafficking cases are internal and they involve forced labor in artisanal mining sites, agriculture, domestic servitude, or armed group recruitment of children in combat and support roles, as well as sex trafficking.
According to the U.S. Department of State 2021, Trafficking in Persons Report, diamonds, copper, gold, cobalt, ores, and tin are all produced with forced labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). A 2016 report which sampled 300 mines, found armed groups present at 16 percent and the Congolese army present at 36 percent. Of these, direct interference was found in 84 percent.
Armed interference is highest in the eastern, conflict-affected areas of North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri regions. Armed groups control the mines in order to exploit the minerals and use the revenue to fund their activities. In some cases, the forces that control mining sites, often representatives of the armed forces or rebel groups, make local miners work at gunpoint without pay at their mining site for short periods of time – a process known as “solango.”
The groups controlling the mines are often the only source of credit in these impoverished regions, and they give loans to miners for money, food, and tools. Miners are then required to pay back these loans at hugely inflated rates, which can force them into a cycle of debt bondage. Debt bondage amongst women miners has become normalized and can result in forced marriage and inter-generational indebtedness. In addition, false or exaggerated criminal charges may be used to compel miners into service. Child soldiers are also conscribed to work at the mines. Approximately, 16 percent of Congolese mining for cobalt are children, with some as young as six years.
Further, according to the same report, the DRC Government made significant efforts to eliminate trafficking but did not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. These efforts included convicting an armed group leader of child soldier recruitment and sexual slavery, investigations, and prosecutions of those complicit, the partial implementation of a national action plan, and measures to enhance victim identification.
However, efforts were found not to have increased beyond those of the previous reporting period and authorities investigated fewer cases. For this reason, the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons classified the DRC under the Tier 2 Watch List for the second consecutive year. If the DRC does not improve its record from 2021, it faces being downgraded to Tier 3.
The human trafficking risk is generally internal and may be found among both adults and children in export supply chains including small-scale agriculture and the illegal mining of diamonds, copper, gold, cobalt, ore, and tin. Additionally, Congolese men, women, and children are vulnerable to trafficking as combatants and in supporting roles within armed groups as well as in the mining sector. The U.S. Department of State confirms the presence of debt-based coercion. Women and girls are at a higher risk for sex trafficking related to the mining sector, but also nationally, regionally, and internationally. Children are vulnerable to forced labor in small-scale agriculture, domestic work, street begging, vending, and portering. Children from the neighboring Republic of the Congo may transit through the DRC en route to Angola or South Africa, where traffickers may exploit them in domestic servitude.
Some of the efforts the government has put into place to eliminate Human trafficking include:
- Finalizing Standard operating procedures (SOPs) for victim identification
- Referral to services and partnering with NGOs to identify more trafficking victims
- Investigation, prosecution, and convicting of the traffickers including complicit officials.
A significant number of artisanal miners-men and boys are exploited in situations of debt bondage. Armed groups reportedly use threats and coercion to force men and children to mine for minerals.
Congolese women and children are exploited internally in conditions of involuntary domestic servitude and some are taken to other countries (Angola, South Africa, the Republic of Congo, and European nations) for commercial sexual exploitation.
Despite the efforts made by the DRC’s government to eliminate human trafficking, there continues to be a lack of victim identification procedures and criminalization of trafficking crimes.