"In the east African region, the statistical information is being gathered, but the crime is on the increase," Jeffrey Avina, director for operations at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told the first regional anti-human trafficking conference in eastern Africa, under way in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, until 22 June.
"It is our intention to take action and enforce the laws but we need alliances. There is a need for greater coordination, cooperation and awareness in the region," Avina added.
Conflict in northern Uganda, where rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army have been widely accused of abducting thousands of children during the past two decades, made the country stand out as the state worst affected by trafficking in eastern Africa.
"Between 25,000 and 30,000 children have been recruited into the rebel ranks and have ended up in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo," said Matia Kasaija, Uganda's assistant minister for the interior.
According to UNODC, most victims of human trafficking are women and young girls, many of whom are forced into prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation. Trafficked men end up working in commercial farms, mines and quarries, or in other dirty and dangerous working conditions. Boys and girls are trafficked into conditions of child labour, within a diverse group of industries, such as textiles, fishing or agriculture.
"This is not about individuals; we are talking about organised crime," said Avina. "On a global scale, we are talking of an industry which earns US$32 billion per year. This is serious business. About 2.7 million people are trafficked at any one point every year in 127 countries," he added.
The conference in Uganda is jointly organised by UNODC's Regional Office for Eastern Africa and the Eastern African Police Chiefs Cooperation Organization through the International Criminal Police Organization's sub-regional office.
Police chiefs, immigration officials and aid workers from 11 countries - Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and the Seychelles - are attending the conference, conceived under the UN-led Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking in Persons launched in March 2007. This seeks to fight human trafficking by building support to raise awareness, strengthen prevention, reduce demand, support and protect victims and improve law enforcement.
Trafficking in human beings is outlawed under the UN Protocol Against Trafficking in Persons, which has been in effect since December 2003.