Many readers would be forgiven for not spotting the link between a hair salon in Kampala, Uganda and the human trafficking ring bust in Macau, China early last year. It may be equally surprising to learn that both locations are firmly linked to Guangzhou.
Back in December 2012, A Report of the Standing Committee on Equal Opportunities on A Working Visit To Dubai, India and China was issued by the Ugandan government.
Section 8.0, Human Trafficking and Sexual Slavery In The People’s Republic of China, states,“Since its opening in July 2011, the Uganda Consulate in Guangzhou has registered growing numbers of Ugandan girls being trafficked and forced into prostitution in China,” adding that, “it is more widespread in Guangzhou because … [Guangzhou] is the leading commercial and trade hub of China.”
At that time it was believed “that there [were] more than 300 Ugandan girls in Guangzhou alone” who had been tricked and trafficked into the city where their “return air ticket is withdrawn immediately… the ticket sold, and money for the ticket refunded to the racket in Uganda.”
The girls would work the hotels and streets of districts Xiaobei and San Yuan Li,and could be acquired at most times of the day. There would be up to ten new arrivals passing immigration at Guangzhou’s Baiyun International airport on a daily basis. Since then much has changed, yet some things have stayed rigidly the same.
Back in 2012, 23-year-old Texan Kathryn Ronas came to Guangzhou to work for an American company and witnessed first-hand “how big and how bad the situation was.” Ronas began by simple outreach work: she “would happily work with any nationality, but Ugandans speak English and it’s the community that has most reached out to me for help.” Ronas is a non-denominational Christian. She says, “70 percent of Ugandans are Christian. In Uganda you’re either a Christian or a Muslim and it’s more of a tribal thing.”
The Dallas native has helped repatriate ten Ugandan women and, though she has a name card to distribute to the right people, she operates primarily by word of mouth.
Ugandan sex workers in Guangzhou have been subjected to a 5,500-mile bait and switch. Scores of Internet blogs posted over the last four years reveal a similar trend with duped girls. Most are dated 2012 or early 2013.
The process often begins in the hair salons of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, where girls are poached. The women — often making a paltry $40-50 a month — are desperate for any opportunity to a better life. Successful traffickers present an image of fortune and wealth, naturally drawing unsuspecting and gullible women in.
One online blog tells the story of Grace. In 2012, Grace, in her mid-twenties, was job hunting in Kampala. She ran into an acquaintance who told her that unemployment could be ended in an instant. The woman, a trafficker named Faith Karongo Nasasira, who has subsequently been jailed, told Grace about working in China, “She floated the idea of working abroad [and] it sounded very good. She then made a call and, soon after, a man arrived. He looked me over before making a call. I overheard him say ‘kano kajja kukola” — Luganda for ‘this little one will do.’”
Grace handed over her passport to obtain a Chinese visa — she would also agree to pay $7,500 for having been given a job. Impressionable, Grace believed she would be a waitress at Karongo’s ‘African restaurant’ in China. At a shrine in Kibuli, where she was cleansed and blessed, she signed an agreement to repay the money within two months.
On landing in Guangzhou, Grace was told to head to a designated hotel in the city. At the hotel, things took a turn for the worse. In one of the rooms, Karongo presented Grace with a set of skimpy outfits and high heels. Grace says of the provided clothes, “They all fit perfectly. Someone must have given [Karongo] my true description.” She was then ordered to wear the new clothes and get to work, “[Karongo] said I had come to be a prostitute. I collapsed.”
Grace says she spent 10 tough days in China, refusing to sell her body. All this time, a Nigerian man assisting Karongo had taken pity on Grace, and given her the RMB1,000 a night to pay Karongo.
The 2012 report states that “On arrival in the PRC, the traffickers confiscate victims’ passports and are required to pay between $3000 and $5000 before they can get back their passports [with expired visas] and break away from the ‘bosses’ in bondage.” And these bosses, making up to $20,000 and usually female, were often sex workers themselves at one stage.
Grace, due to her stubbornness, was trafficked to Malaysia where she was physically assaulted for again refusing to become a prostitute. In the end, after hiding out at a Ugandan’s pastor’s house and, with the help of the Uganda Consulate in Malaysia, she made it back home.
With the bulk of her support coming from a tax deductible American charity, Ronas helps women like Grace return to Uganda with an expired visa and supports them in the process. For several months she’s been getting “three new calls a week.” Nearly all of them are Ugandans.
She assists by providing the women with the right information: where to go and what to do. She tries to raise the money for the plane ticket home and the RMB10,000 fine for overstaying a visa. Many women are unaware of the Uganda Consulate of Guangzhou, and one of Ronas’s roles is to connect them with it. Members of the Consulate wanted to remain off the record.
Once a woman’s visa has expired, she’s taken to a detention centre. After serving an unspecified time there (up to several months), the penalty is waived. The woman is then required to pay for a flight ticket home. For those unable to afford the price of a ticket the detention period is often longer before release and deportation.
Assisting girls who want to stop working as prostitutes, Ronas pays them a stipend in the two-to-three-month process it takes to get them home. During that time the girls cannot go back to prostitution. If they do, Ronas says, “it wouldn’t be an immediate deal breaker, but it would likely change the terms of assistance.”
Ronas shies away from dealing directly with the authorities as it “can cause more harm than good.” She states emphatically that it’s not always Ugandans, “there are also a large number of Tanzanian women, and I’ve heard of Rwandan, Kenyan and Guinean women as well.” And, of course, not all Ugandans in Guangzhou are connected to trafficking.
Offering a more academic perspective on the dilemma is Heidi Østbø Haugen, a research fellow currently studying at Sun Yat-sen university, one of best in the country. Haugen explores migration from Africa to China and trade from China to Africa.
In an African food restaurant near Xiaobei metro station, Haugen explains that unlike Chinese sex workers, trafficked Africans “tend to be older, late 20s, in their 30s, some in their 40s.” This is down to primary and secondary education being free in Uganda, meaning women have usually held jobs for several years before being approached.
Haugen explains, “Trafficking is dependent on networks and infrastructure. Once the trade has been set up then they will start and continue to do it.”
And it’s no random geographical phenomenon that areas San Yuan Li and Xiaobei Lu have become hotspots for African streetwalkers. In San Yuan Li squats a huge trading mall called Canaan. Canaan, in the Bible, means “the Promised Land” and attracts many Nigerian Christians — over 50 percent of Nigeria’s population is Christian. In the Xiaobei area there are many services catering for Muslims, especially those on short trading trips. It’s a convenient place to stay with clothes, shoes and suitcases for sale, and the 500-year-old Xiao Dongying mosque in the vicinity.
There are all kinds of estimates of Africans living in Guangzhou ranging from 20,000 to 200,000, but Haugen believes “the number is closer to 20,000.” The statistics are inflated as Africans entering anywhere in Guangdong Province are counted.
Most West Africans in Guangdong tend to be men, whilst the women come from East Africa and trade in anything from clothes, shoes and hair products to mobile phones and motorcycles. Once coming to Guangzhou, however, many relocate to nearby cities such as Shenzhen, Foshan or Dongguan.
“A new immigration policy has made it increasingly difficult for girls to actually leave the country.”
Haugen says, “the immigration issues are throwing up new challenges for the Chinese government… There’s a big discussion at the moment as China becomes an immigration destination.”
Of career routes Haugen points out that “sex worker to trader is a more viable than sex worker to trafficker. Many would rather undo their choices. Even those that make it, do so with great sacrifice.” Leaving your home and family is one thing, but “going back and putting your people into debt is disastrous.”
The strict RMB10,000 fine is putting the individual person in debt. China’s attitude towards immigration drives those with an illegal status to stay and hide rather than expose themselves.
A new immigration policy has made it increasingly difficult for girls to actually leave the country. If your visa has expired then you can’t be issued registration documents. It’s a catch-22 situation where the immigration department won’t issue an exit visa without the necessary documents, and the registration office can’t provide anything if your visa has expired.
These stipulations have created a very high and small hoop for Ronas to jump through. Throw in the RMB2,000 registration fine and one can see the need for Ronas to raise $3,000 to $4000 for each girl.
Haugen believes, “If a market has been created for prostitution then the solution is to prosecute the traffickers not tighten visa restrictions.”
Towards the end of Haugen’s explanation and Ronas’s passionate message is echoed, “There is a massive exaggeration about African sex workers. It’s sad when unsuccessful businesswomen come over. Many label all African women prostitutes out of jealousy.” It’s undeniable that human traffickers have made it more difficult for African women as a whole. They are continually viewed with extra scrutiny.
With the help of people like Ronas and the strengthening relationship between the Uganda Consulate of Guangzhou and the Public Security Bureau, the market has drastically changed. Many authorities don’t have exact figures but seriously doubt there are many, if any, new arrivals at Baiyun airport.
At the end of 2012 the Chinese Embassy in Kampala began paying closer attention to Ugandans under 35 years old travelling to Guangzhou with a focus on women. Prior to this Ugandans were not even required to appear at the Chinese Embassy in Kampala, and could acquire a visa through a travel agent. Now, at both sides of the journey Ugandan women travelling to Guangzhou are interviewed and required to disclose their intentions. Those that claim to be traders must have Kampala City Traders’ Association (KACITA) documentation. The under-35-year-old policy is still in effect to this day.
For those who have presented themselves to the authorities, the steep RMB10,000 fine can be negotiated down to anywhere between RMB3,000 to RMB4,000. If the traffickers are caught then they are often required to pay the victim’s airfare once they’re released from a detention facility.
Those wanting a hotel room need a valid passport and visa. Once you’ve overstayed, hotels and landlords can get in trouble for giving you registration.
“Because of the ever-present patrolling police, the girls now function using mobile phones straight out of apartments. Many are housebound for fear of being apprehended…”
Back in Uganda, there is now a human trafficking department integrated within the police force. Bosses and traffickers often operate from Uganda and these days there are hardly any enforcers monitoring the women on the ground. Ronas “hasn’t heard of any Ugandan in the last eight months that are paying someone, it’s very rare.”
Because of the ever-present patrolling police, the girls now function using mobile phones straight out of apartments. Many are housebound for fear of being apprehended by police officers. Ironically, one of the safest times for the girls to walk the streets is in the early afternoon, when officers are either lunching or napping. When they do, they may approach African men in African shops. Unlike local sex workers, the method is very discreet and unless you’ve witnessed the process a few times before, the whole interaction could be mistaken for two friends having an innocent chat.
To discover what remains these days, I headed to a notorious area of the city. On an infamous walk-over bridge in the Xiaobei area two girls stand approximately ten meters from each other, both leaning idly on the bridge’s balustrades, both adorned in tight fitting red dresses.
Twenty-three-year-old Rachel from Kenya gets paid between “100 and 300 [RMB] for one shot”and serves mainly African men but has Chinese customers too. Like Haugen mentions, “It’s important not to think that Chinese men aren’t attracted to African women.”
Rachel says, “there’s no one around. I’m here with a few other friends. I don’t have to watch out for violence, just police.” Asked how long she’s been here for she replies, “three months. My visa has expired. I don’t know how to get back.” According to Rachel her friends who invited her here have subsequently left. Now she has between three and six customers a day, and works outside for three hours most evenings after dark. She rents a place near her spot where she takes customers.
The other girl, a Ugandan in her mid-twenties, goes by the name of Betty. On approaching her, Betty offers “African style fun” and a “good time,” but quickly changes her story after a detailed introduction.
Within five minutes Betty has changed her nationality to Rwandan then Burundian. “I lied baby, I’m here for two weeks. I’m going to a club. I go clubbing. I’m a musician. Why do you think I’m standing here?”
Due to the severe lack of options the girls currently working here have, they are more akin to sex slaves than sex workers. That said, however, we were told that a small proportion come over fully aware of what they are getting into. Back in 2011 when the Ugandan Consulate first identified the problem, prostitution was so rife and commonplace that many traffickers weren’t aware of just how illegal what they were doing was.
Explaining the final link in this chain, the Macau Daily Times reported that:
“The Public Security Police (PSP) have busted a human trafficking ring and arrested four people after receiving telephone and e-mail reports claiming there were prostitutes working in a hotel in the Central District. The PSP then launched into operation and found 38 females and two males in five hotel rooms. All of the people are nationals from Tanzania, aged between 19 and 34…” The story continues with:
“One woman who told PSP officers that she was coerced into prostituting herself in China. The woman said that she was offered work as a salesperson in Guangzhou but was eventually forced to become a prostitute there. All her income was taken away by another woman.”
Unfortunately, as traffickers relinquish their grip on innocent Ugandans, they are now redirecting their efforts towards other East African countries and other Chinese cities.
This article first appeared on The Missing Slate