Gender & SGBVHuman RightsInvestigations

Nairobi’s Sex Trafficking Gangs And The Girls On The Receiving End

Organised sex trafficking networks operating in Kenya’s capital city prowl rural communities for vulnerable girls. They promise them an escape from poverty. Instead, they lock them up in hotel rooms with tourists who abuse them for many months — often without consequence.

It’s Friday noon, and Ebla Ali wades through a muddy lane in Eastleigh, a predominantly Somali community in the suburbs of Nairobi, hoping to get information from a women’s rights organisation handling her case.

Ebla, 26, is a victim of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Despite the chilly weather triggered by heavy rains that pounded the Kenyan capital, she was determined not to postpone her appointment. 

“The rains or bad weather cannot stop me from pursuing the case,” she told HumAngle. “I was sexually exploited, beaten and held against my will by a man from Hunslow, England. I was duped by other women. Even though the perpetrator has fled to England, I must get justice.”

Ebla is among an estimated thousands of Kenyans who have suffered in the hands of well-heeled women traffickers who dupe poverty-stricken girls with promises of life-changing opportunities only to end up in abusive and forced relationships.

She comes from Bula Argi, a small village of mudhouses located in Kenya’s Garissa County. Since she was a child, she has dreamt of one day becoming a nurse and assisting her family and townspeople. Her goal was to empower her people and lift them out of poverty. She had good grades in school. But, after she completed her primary school education, her parents could not afford to pay for her enrolment in advanced classes or a nursing course. This made her susceptible to those promises of grand opportunities from girls from neighbouring villages. She saw them as her chance to finally further her educational pursuit and achieve her dreams.

She landed right in the palms of traffickers and a sexual exploitation ring. She survived and is now bent on getting justice.

The recruitment

Ebla was approached by a group of girls, whom she now knows to be recruiters for a well-connected human trafficking cartel that usually operates in parts of Kenya with high populations of residents of Somali descent.

Kenya, which borders Somalia to the West, has had a large population of ethnic Somalis for many decades, especially in the North Eastern Province. According to the 2019 census, there are about 2.8 million indigenous Somali people in Kenya, constituting nearly 6 per cent of the total population.

“I remember young girls who were wearing expensive clothes and gold chains visited our village in Bulla Argi. They were taking selfies and engaging young girls; we liked their styles and opulence,” Ebla recalled.

The girls visited many times before introducing Ebla and others to the trafficking cartel.

“They gave us money, bottled water and juices and shared motivational stories with us. To village girls, these were genuine Somali girls with the intention of empowering the less fortunate.”

After about ten visits, the recruiters identified their targets: five girls, including Ebla, who would be trafficked down to Nairobi, about 360km away, and handed to sex tourists from Western countries. The five girls received special treatment. They gave them gold chains and silky dheera, an expensive Somali dress.

“The chains and dheera made us popular as nobody in our settlement could afford those luxurious goods. It lifted our spirits,” said Ebla. “But it also gave us an abusive and unforgettable experience.”

The recruiters also gave Ebla $500 for her family and promised more money awaited her in Nairobi, where she could start a part-time job and continue schooling. But they never intended to keep that promise.

Ebla Ali, a victim of trafficking, getting updates on the investigation regarding her case in Eastleigh, Kenya.

The abuse

All hell broke loose in Nairobi.

Ebla said she was handed over to a British-Somali man who locked her in a hotel room and abused her. He forced her to take alcohol, shisha (vaporised tobacco), and marijuana. Occasionally, he would go out to run an errand or withdraw money through Hawala, an informal money transfer system commonly used by Somali migrants.

“I thought I would get a good education and do a part-time job to support my poor family back in Garissa, but it turned hellish. The man used to beat me every day. He forced me to take one meal and introduced me to hard drugs,” said Ebla.

“My phone was confiscated by the women trafficking cartels, and I was cut off from communicating with the outside world for the six months I was held hostage.”

She added that her captor raped her, sometimes recording the sexual encounters on his phone.

“He used to rape me day and night. He took pictures of my naked body and recorded videos of him raping me. It was a harrowing and painful ordeal.’’

The collusion

Women traffickers are usually in cahoots with hotel workers to prevent their victims from escaping, according to research by Frontier Indigenous Network, a women’s rights advocacy group which handles sexual exploitation cases. Though they are aware of the abuses, the hotel staff members choose not to report them to the management or the police. 

“It’s a clear criminal collusion between the hotel staffs and the cartel. The unholy links ensure no cases are reported, which gives the perpetrators an upper hand and avenue to escape justice,” explained Qamar Abdi, a programme officer with Frontier Indigenous Network.

Ebla made several attempts to escape from her hotel room but was unsuccessful.

“My plan was to run out of the room and make noise so as to catch the attention of other hotel guests and workers. The hotel management usually sent a well-built male worker to clean the room, and he did his work while locking the room from the inside,” she said.

One time, when the cleaner opened the window, she went close to the opening and screamed.

“But he shut the window and beat me mercilessly. He reported me to the British-Somali man who also meted violence on me.”

According to Qamar, the “sex tourist” who violated Ebla locked her in the room and left the country without her knowledge. The trafficking cartels have devised a means to make sure there is little evidence of the crime.

“They book rooms for the sex vacationers, and all their belongings are locked in a room while the trafficked girl is taken to a different room, and the abuses take place there,” the women’s rights advocate said. 

“After a number of months, the trafficker will lock the girl in the hotel room and go to the next room holding his belongings and depart to the airport. The girl’s hotel room will only be opened when rogue hotel workers get clearance from the powerful women cartel.”

After her six-month ordeal, a hotel employee approached Ebla with news that the foreigner had left the country. She could only continue to stay in the room if she was willing to pay the daily raise of $20.

“After a night of physical abuse, the man left the room and told me that he wanted to collect more money from the Hawala shop on Ninth Street. It was a normal routine. When he did not return after many hours, I realised all was not well. But I had no means of communicating with the outside world as the room was fitted with soundproof materials. After some time, a hotel worker knocked on the door and told me my roommate had left the country. I had to leave.’’

According to Qamar, most hotels have no surveillance camera which could offer video evidence to corroborate the accounts of victims and hotel employees are usually uncooperative when such cases are presented to the police.

Between 2020 and 2023, she said, various human rights groups in the Kamukunji Sub-county presented 430 cases to the police, but the matters could not proceed as the perpetrators had fled the country. 

“Most hotels deny that the girls were lodged by them. Worst of all, the cartels use identification cards of dead persons or lost identities to book the rooms for illegal sex vacationers. The hotel management presents the identity of the person occupying the room to the police, and later, the investigation indicates that the owner of that identity card passed on eight years ago,” Qamar explained.

The pattern

Ebla’s ordeal is only one of many. Fatuma Olat, a 24-year-old school dropout from the coastal village of Bondeni, had a similar experience.

Women traffickers approached her with the promise of getting her a good job in a Nairobi-based business mall managed by Somali traders.

“They took advantage of my family’s poor background and my basic education level. They knew I was desperate and in need of a job, and they promised me a good salary and upkeep,” she recounted.

The traffickers showed her videos of the mall and pictures of girls who were supposedly employed in various establishments across Nairobi after they embraced the golden opportunity. Fatuma was sold. Here was a chance to support her family.

But when she accepted the offer, the traffickers did not take her to a fancy mall that paid a fat salary. They lodged her at a hotel on Eastleigh’s Twelfth Street and forced her to stay with an old Somali man based in Norway. They seized her phone, had a bouncer read her the riot act, and locked her in a room.

“She [the bouncer] ordered me to be loyal to the old man; otherwise, I would face severe punishment. The old man was not violent, but he forced me to have sex with him for four months before he went back to Norway,” she said.

Daily, a group of hawk-eyed youth visited Fatuma’s room to check on her behaviour and receive complaints from the old man. They were the traffickers’ enforcement arm.

“They would beat me if a negative report was made by the man against me. I had no option but to cooperate while looking for ways of escaping from the room and causing a scene, which would lead to my freedom,” Fatuma said.

Just like the man from London, the old Norwegian man left without informing Fatuma, who remained locked inside the room. Four hours after his departure, a hotel staffer opened the door and said she could only remain in the room if she paid the lodging fee.

“I was penniless and decided to leave. I approached two women hawkers who linked me to a family living near the hotel and they hosted me for ten days. They finally linked me to an organisation which handles cases of women’s rights violations and girls’ trafficking.”

According to Ebla, many girls have sustained severe injuries from their experience. Many have been impregnated by the sex tourists and are left to fend for the children by themselves. Some have turned to begging to make ends meet. Others opted to abort the pregnancies, sometimes losing their lives in the process. She said she knows three such girls who died trying to get rid of the pregnancies.

The obstacles

Both Ebla and Fatuma faced a similar fate, with their abusers escaping and leaving them to nurse their wounds.

“They are victims of the same trafficking network doing the same things to a number of innocent girls. It’s a collusion involving many enablers and facilitators out to defeat justice,” claimed Qamar of the Frontier Indigenous Network.

According to the police investigation, the mobile phone numbers used by the traffickers and recruiters in duping and engaging their targets are all registered through fake identities.

“It’s a complex web involving many actors and government officials and a well-oiled business. It’s hard to crack the cartel network and dismantle it as you don’t know who is behind it, but what is known as the underground cartel network is protected by powerful officials,” stated a police source.

What Ebla knows about the man who abused her is that he is from Hunslow and claimed to be called “Abdi Guhad”. This information was passed to the Kenyan police and forwarded to UK law enforcement agents. But the investigation hit a dead end as the British police could not trace someone going by that name.

“All his travel documents and belongings were locked in a different room, thus denying me the opportunity to know his exact name and even get his luggage tag number, which could reveal his true identity,” Ebla said.

Shukriya Ismail (not real name), a former recruiter for the trafficking network, corroborated Ebla’s accounts, confirming that the network is so discrete in its operation that it destroys evidence and trails that could implicate it.

“I was a girl recruiter from 2013 to 2016 before I was dropped by the cartel. They are powerful and organised, and they use fake identities. I came to learn the cartel in Kenya is connected to another group in Europe, America, Canada and Australia,” claimed Shukriya.

According to her, the underground sex trafficking business started in 2008 but only gained the attention of local human rights organisations a decade later.

“From 2018, when the cases were presented to the Pangani police station, the cartel changed their game and decided to drop many recruiters, including me. Their illegal business model changed and they invested heavily in bribing authorities and security apparatus while doing their work with few trusted and tested recruiters,” she explained.

Several attempts to get a comment from the Kenyan Police about these allegations were unsuccessful. 

Shukriya Ismail engaging with a human rights official in Eastleigh, Kenya. She works closely with human rights organisations in fighting the trafficking of girls.

Shukriya has shared her experience with different non-governmental organisations but is afraid to cooperate with the police, fearing she might be prosecuted based on her previous work with the cartels.

“They might use me as a scapegoat while protecting the real powerful traffickers,” she said.

Another former trafficker, Salado Ahmed (not real name), claimed that the cartel uses traditional courts to settle cases from girls who report violations to the police.

Many people from northern Kenya and other pastoralist communities adhere to strict cultural practices, including respect for the traditional adjudicating bodies known as Maslah Courts.

“The traffickers have corrupted traditional courts in Nairobi, Mombasa, and the northern part of Kenya,” she alleged. 

“From 2018, the women trafficking cartels used the courts in forcing girls to drop their police cases and instead accept payouts from face-less individuals. Most girls accept the payout, which is called saben, and you have no right to ask who paid it. It can be paid by any anonymous person. Poverty and the trauma they underwent contribute to them falling prey to the settlement.”

Girls like Ebla have, however, resisted pressure to settle in this manner and continue to use legal means to seek justice.

Ebla said she was approached four times by her clan elders living in Nairobi. They offered a settlement of $200 in exchange for severing her ties with the women’s rights organisation. “The elders refused to divulge the name of the person behind the payout and I suspect they are being used by the representatives of the women trafficking cartels,” she told us.

The extent

The trafficking business is not a drop in Kenya’s ocean of crime. It is not only organised, it also has far-reaching impacts.

Salado, the former recruiter, claimed that the cartels offer various services like airport transfers, facilitating their entry immigration stamps, and visa renewals for their clientele.

“The sex vacationers are well protected and they don’t present their passports for visa renewals. It’s done for them while they are abusing young girls. All their errands and processing are done by the women trafficking cartels through their enablers and facilitators,” she alleged.

According to rights organisations, the illegal sex trafficking business has fueled the growth of the construction industry in the Eastleigh Somali district as many investors jostled to build service apartments, residencies, and posh hotels.

“From 2013 to 2016, a lot of hotels and residencies sprang up. That is the period the women trafficking cartels made a lot of money before they encountered pressure and resistance from women’s rights groups,” stated Fatuma Olow from the Eastleigh Women Empowerment group. 

Data collected by government-backed community groups known as Nyumba Kumi showed that the number of cases increased during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to other years. Two thousand (2,000) cases were reported in 2020, 3,500 the next year, and 1,800 in 2022. 

But there is hope.

Just like the criminals, local rights groups in Nairobi are organising. They have formed an umbrella association and are working to forge alliances with other organisations based in Western countries as well as pro bono legal service providers. They would also work with Somali communities abroad to help with identifying and locating culprits. This would enable them to track the abusers even after they have left the borders of Kenya.

“Our plan is to disrupt illegal sex vacations from both Kenya and the Western world. We want to locate past and current Somali sex vacationers through collaboration with Western groups, using community collaboration and the latest tools like open-source intelligence (OSINT),” said Mrs Qamar Abdi, Women rights advocate.

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