By Alfred Koroma
Mary Kolokoh sensed something shady in a deal for her travelling to Dubai, but the luxury promise she couldn’t resist, landed her in a horrible experience. She was sexually exploited, arrested, imprisoned and then repatriated.
Promised a job that could earn her $500 – an equivalent of Le10 millions monthly, the victim’s focus was to get out of the country and have a better life. Many young Sierra Leoneans have fallen prey through those promises, trafficked or in some cases smuggled for forced labour, sexual exploitation and subjected to other human rights abuses.
Research findings from APPRIES reveals that 33 percent of young Sierra Leoneans have gone through the experience of being trafficked or smuggled.
To reverse this trend, the Government of Sierra Leone set up the Transnational Organized Crime Unit (TOCU) in the Sierra Leone police to investigate and prosecute cases related to drugs and human trafficking. The move follows the passing into law, the Anti-Human Trafficking Act of 2005.
Despite the move, human smuggling and trafficking crimes remain rife, while less cases are being charged and prosecuted. Victims or their relatives file complaints but how those complaints are being handled does not seem satisfactory to some members of the public. Some sources who have filed complaints to TOCU spoke to me, expressing dissatisfaction with the way their complaints have been handled.
One of them, Mary Kalokoh said she filed complaint to TOCU against an agent in 2021. The agent she complained, Abdul Sesay was arrested and detained. But she later came to realize that the agent had been set free. The agent is on bail, but Mary said as to whether her case will go further and justice delivered seems unclear.
“I’m not happy, another victim, Musa Tarawally said. “They did not treat my case well. They did not do anything about my complaint.”
Abdulai Mansaray who complained an agent for duping him 17 million Leones re-echoed similarly. He said his case was never treated until he abandoned it.
The Sierra Leone Police which has TOCU as one of its units, is a force generally accused by the public of being corrupt and unprofessional.
The victims filed their cases two years back when TOCU was being headed by Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP), Alhaji Kelfala Bangura who has been transferred at the general duty, Local Unit Command in Tankoro Chiefdom, a remote part in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone.
Speaking to this medium, founder and Executive Director of Advocacy Network Against Irregular Migration (ANAIM), Sheaku Bangura recalled encountering challenges with TOCU under its former head. He said he sends victims’ complaints to TOCU, but whenever he checks to know the progress made on those complaints, he gets no positive response.
“The agent who trafficked Mary was arrested and set free after spending few days in custody. My worry is that as long as he is free, he will dupe other people.”
“TOCU now has a new administration. But before the new administration, there were challenges in the leadership of TOCU. I don’t want to go deeper into that again,” the ANAIM Executive Director said.
The Acting Head of TOCU
Deputy Superintendent of Sierra Leone Police, Emmanuel Abdul Cole is the Acting Head of TOCU. He has worked in the unit for almost nine years as Taskforce, Supervisor, Operations Officer, and Deputy Head, before taking over as Acting Head about five months ago.
I put a question to him about the concerns raised by the victims above with regards the way the police unit has handled their matters.
Specifically, Mr. Cole said “Mary’s case, we are done with the investigations. We are hoping to charge the matter to court. Musa Tarawally’s case is at the same level with Mary.”
But the complainants denied having knowledge of their cases being set for court trial. Tarawally disputed Mr. Cole’s claim, saying he has no knowledge as to whether his matter is set to be charged to court. Nobody told me anything, he stated.
Human trafficking and smuggling comes with severe consequences for victims and in most cases costing their lives. In March 2023, five Sierra Leoneans working in Lebanon died from a mysterious fire incident that left two of their companions critically injured in a nine story building.
The UN migration agency rated Africa as the second-deadliest region for migrants, with more than 9,000 migration-related deaths documented since 2014. Most migrants engaged in those perilous adventures in search of better lives, do so ignorantly. They are lured by criminals who have embraced human trafficking and smuggling as a job.
“Every day, we receive complaints of trafficking and smuggling related matters from victims or their relatives,” the Acting Head of the organized crime unit said.
Mr. Cole did not provide records of the complaints and data on cases they have handled in recent years, but says they last secured three convictions in 2020, and they have not secured any other since then.
They prosecute cases, he said but sometimes lack of evidence and cooperation of victims and witnesses, cases are discharged.
For some complaints, the police unit makes progress on them quickly because of the victim’s cooperation, but in other cases, he said the victims are influenced by their agents to drop their complaints. Once that happens, the victims stop cooperating with the police investigating their complaints. “This is one aspect that causes the delay. Or even hamper the investigation,” he added.
The 2021 U.S Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report places Sierra Leone in Tier 2, which means the country has not fully complied with the minimum standards in combating trafficking in persons. According to the report, Sierra Leone remains a source and destination for human trafficking, forced labor and sexual exploitation.
The issue with assessing how Transnational Organized Crime Unit effectively handles human trafficking and smuggling cases stems from the facts that no data is available. In interview, the Acting Head of told me they receive complaints of trafficking daily, although the police unit cannot produce data on the claim.
In a magazine published last year, the Judiciary said it has convicted five cases but says no comprehensive data on trafficking convictions or prosecutions are available.
But the problem is that with all the amount of human trafficking and smuggling cases reported in Sierra Leone, it is surprising to find out that the judiciary of Sierra Leone has prosecuted and convicted only five traffickers in the country since 2020.
TOCU for example, say they receive cases almost on a daily basis, which they claimed to have been seriously investigated and well handled. This however begs the question as to what is the Sierra Leone law enforcement officers doing to punish convicted traffickers for their inhumane crime?
Journalism Centre on Global Trafficking sponsored this story with support from the CeNTHRO, University of Georgia.