NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – More than 100,000 people were smuggled out of eastern Africa in 2012, heroin seizures are soaring and ivory poaching has risen to levels that could threaten local elephant populations, the United Nations said in a report on organised crime on Tuesday.
Most of the people being smuggled are Ethiopians and Somalis hoping to find a better life working in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. En route, they are often kidnapped, tortured and held for ransom.
“This is driven in part by high levels of conflict and poverty which have resulted in a large and vulnerable stream of migrants,” the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a statement.
“Many of those trying to escape the situations they face are subjected to a range of abuses, including confinement, beatings, extortion and rape at multiple stages of their journey.”
Criminal networks are behind the human smuggling trade, earning $15 million a year for organising the dangerous voyage across the Gulf of Aden or Red Sea.
The other growing criminal enterprises explored in the report, Transnational Organized Crime in Eastern Africa: A Threat Assessment, are heroin trafficking from South-West Asia, ivory trafficking to Asia and Somali piracy.
Weak governance and corruption make the region attractive for traffickers.
“Until the rule of law is firmly established in the region, these crimes and others like them are likely to continue,” the report said.
The drug trade is the most lucrative pursuit, with $160 million of heroin consumed locally each year. The region is largely a transit point to other parts of Africa and beyond.
The 2.5 tonnes consumed within eastern Africa is a small fraction of the estimated 22 tonnes that is moved through the region.
While heroin has been trafficked to and through eastern Africa since the 1980s, a series of recent large seizures suggests the flow has increased. More heroin was seized between 2010 and 2012 than in the previous 20 years – and more was seized in the first five months of 2013 than in the previous two years, the report said.
Ivory poaching is also increasing. Between 5,600 and 15,400 elephants are poached in East Africa annually, producing between 56 and 154 tonnes of illicit ivory, the report said.
Asia is the main market, accounting for two-thirds of the trade. In 2011, 37 tonnes were delivered to Asia, worth around $30 million.
“The rate of poaching in Eastern Africa has risen to levels that could significantly threaten the local elephant population,” UNODC said.
The one piece of good news in the report is that Somali maritime piracy has fallen dramatically thanks to tougher security aboard ships and increased Western naval patrols. There have been no successful hijackings for over a year.
In 2011, Somali piracy was worth an estimated $150 million, equivalent to almost 15 percent of the country’s GDP.
“This remarkable progress shows that even the largest crime problems can be countered through international cooperation,” UNODC said.