How young men in Kenya’s coastal region fall victim to sex trafficking.

The idyllic beaches of Kenya’s coast are a haven for tourists, but also a hotspot for sex tourism. The trafficking of ‘beach boys’ for sex is one problem reported from the region, which has also reported shockingly high rates of child sexual exploitation by tourists.

The idyllic beaches of Kenya’s coast are a haven for tourists, but also a hotspot for sex tourism. The trafficking of ‘beach boys’ for sex is one problem reported from the region, which has also reported shockingly high rates of child sexual exploitation by tourists.

Photo: Jonah Njoroge M.

‘It never occurred to me that I was a trafficking victim. I thought I had found real love and could now send enough cash for my family in Diani, where my siblings stay, only to find myself giving out my body sexually to women in a foreign land,’ said Mohammed* (whose name has been changed to protect his identity).

Mohammed was a ‘beach boy’, one of many young men in informal work on the Kenyan coast, selling wares ranging from locally made jewellery to madafu, a popular coconut milk. The ‘beach boys’ also find themselves drawn into sex tourism, which is prevalent in Kenya’s Coast province.

Aged 23, Mohammed found himself entangled in a sexual and economic relationship with a 63-year-old Italian woman, who lavished him with gifts including valuables and cash.

‘When she proposed I move with her to Italy, I did not object. I aspired for economic success, having failed to pursue my secondary education due to lack of fees, and viewed her philanthropic gesture as a lifeline. Speaking Italian, French and German – languages I acquired from my daily interactions with other beach boys – was an added advantage,’ he added.

The woman helped him through the process of acquiring a passport and a visa to relocate. He ended up however being forced into sex work, with the woman acting as his pimp. ‘I craved to go home. I was eventually deported due to the lack of proper papers. It was the best thing that happened to me,’ he said.1

Mohammed’s story is not unique. Kenya is witnessing a wave of beach boys travelling from the coastal regions to live with so-called ‘sponsors’, often much older, mainly European women who have travelled to Kenya for tourism. Many of the beach boys, mostly aged between 16 and 25, are enticed by the prospect of a lavish lifestyle or good education. Once out of the country, these young men can find themselves in a precarious position, exploited and coerced into sex work.

The Kenyan coast – from the major port city of Mombasa to popular resort towns such as Malindi and Diani – has long been known as a hotspot for sex tourism.2 Notoriously, this has included the exploitation of children, particularly young girls.3 In 2006, a joint study by UNICEF and the government of Kenya estimated that a third of all girls aged between 12 and 18 years old in four coastal districts were involved in trading casual sex for cash.4 In 2018, Trace Kenya, a local NGO that works to end child trafficking, estimated that as many as 100 000 children – including both girls and boys – were being exploited for sex work in Mombasa.5

The trafficking of beach boys overseas is therefore one aspect of the larger phenomenon of sexual exploitation of local youth by tourists, driven by the inequity between local communities’ poverty and the tourists’ relative wealth. Many of the beach boys come from extremely poor families or are orphans. Robin Omeka from Anika Initiative – an initiative that uses art to campaign on social issues – said that the lack of access to opportunities both in the formal and informal sectors makes them susceptible to being trafficked.

‘The more vulnerable you are, the easier you play into [the traffickers’] script,’ he said. ‘Most people go [to Europe] and never come back or the ones who do come back in coffins. Communication between them and their families starts dwindling to the point where it’s non-existent.’6

To Omeka, the trend is particularly worrying because it has become culturally accepted.7 Families are sending their sons to the beach in order to become attached to someone from abroad and bring money into the family.

Ann Okello, a trauma counsellor based in Kwale, agreed that families push victims to their abusers, especially if they are providing financial support. ‘Every time he wants to leave, he is reminded that this is where they get the day-to-day utilities; including food, electricity, and water,’ she added.8

Peter’s* (name has been changed) parents encouraged him to ‘save’ his siblings from poverty, begging him to hang around the beach to see if his fortunes would turn around. ‘I got an elderly lady from Switzerland who helped me process my passport and visa and paid for German classes. I eventually flew to her country; it was my first time on a flight. With time the lady started coming to seek sexual favours, even dragging [along] her two friends occasionally. I feared contracting HIV and often took [anti-retroviral medication] as a preventive measure. Eventually I was helped by my friends in Kenya after sharing my ordeal on a WhatsApp platform. I was eventually deported. I was happy to be home,’ he said.9

One of these two young men told his story of travelling to Europe with an older woman with whom he had formed a relationship, only to find himself trafficked and coerced into sex work.

One of these two young men told his story of travelling to Europe with an older woman with whom he had formed a relationship, only to find himself trafficked and coerced into sex work.

Photo: Jonah Njoroge M.

Kidato Abdallah, who heads Voice Youth Matters, a human rights organization working on issues including drugs trafficking and violent extremism, worries about the trend of beach boys becoming ‘agents’ who recruit other beach boys and send them overseas. The agents arrange the paperwork, book flights and hotels for them and give them shuttles to and from their airports, after which they receive commissions, he explained.10

In an interview, a beach boy who doubles up as an agent (in his own words, who ‘links up his colleagues to rich white women’) argued that they choose to travel abroad voluntarily, especially those who are the only breadwinners for their family. He said that linking up such men is not hard, as there is a ready supply of female tourists who want to engage with these men sexually. ‘In most cases, they come to me for help. I am only trying to save them from a lifetime of poverty through connecting them to rich individuals,’ he claimed.11

However, the backlash once victims return is strong. ‘The blame on us is so vivid, especially in cases where the victims end up dying in foreign countries. They never forgive you,’ he added.

Hussein Khalid, executive director of Haki Africa, a national human rights organization based in Mombasa, said that although in most cases the traffickers operate alone, his organization has also found that two organized ‘cartels’ have also been spearheading such trafficking.12

Once the victims reach the destination countries – which include Tanzania, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Italy, South Africa and Turkey13– their passports and documents are often confiscated in the guise of safekeeping.

Ali* (name has been changed) was trafficked to Switzerland and explained how his travel documents were taken away from him as soon as he landed. ‘She [the woman who trafficked him] said the passports were safe with her, rather than risk losing such an important document or getting robbed. Whenever I asked for it, she asked why I needed it. I did not have any money nor access to a phone and access to the internet. The first few months were very okay, but after four months, she became violent and abusive … She would insist that I have sex with her and her friends … I just felt trapped and would cry every day. I couldn’t eat or sleep, and I became very sick. When I almost died, she went and dumped me in a hospital. I was then deported. I was relieved to be home,’ said Ali.14

The scope of the issue

It is difficult to know how many beach boys have been trafficked. The Kenyan government reported identifying 383 victims of human trafficking nationwide in 2020, of which 155 were men and boys.15 In 2019, 227 male victims were identified.16

Yet Teen Watch Organization, an NGO based in Ukunda, has rescued 230 beach boys who were trafficking victims in the last two years. ‘100 boys were from Diani, 50 from Msambweni and 80 from Shimoni and Vanga beach,’ reported Ann Njeri, a social worker based in the Coast region.17

The fact that one regional NGO has identified and supported almost as many victims as the entire national figures suggests such figures are a significant underestimate. This is even more stark when it is considered that Teen Watch’s estimate is for beach boys trafficked from the Coast province for sex, whereas the national figures include other forms of modern slavery.

The beach boy ‘agent’ interviewed by the GI-TOC claims he alone ‘helped’ more than 60 boys last year to find hook-ups, most ending with a ‘stable’ source of income in Germany and Switzerland. 18 Many cases also go unreported. Paul Adoch from Trace Kenya said that most of the beach boys do not view themselves as victims, but consider their situation more like arranged marriages that went wrong. This, he argues, makes it difficult for organizations such as his to record cases and support victims.19

The traumatic impact of trafficking

Ann Okello, the trauma counsellor, pointed out that the number of beach boys seeking professional help after coming home from being trafficked has shot up in the last two years. She has attended to eight cases in the last two years but fears the numbers could be higher, since many do not come to seek professional help because of the expense involved.

‘Many fight trauma and live with the fear of coming out to explain the pain they have been through especially in terms of solitary confinement, emotional torture and being forced to abandon the family in search of a better life for them,’ she added.20

Racheal Akinyi, a programme assistant at Peace Tree Network, a Kenyan human rights NGO, emphasized the need for a safe space for beach boys who have survived such ordeals, saying most end up traumatized and suicidal. ‘Some are extorted for pornographic purposes and blackmailed with exposure by their elderly spouses, resorting to silence,’ she said.

She feels it is crucial to engage individuals these men may interact with while they are being trafficked – such as airport officials and hotel managers – as they could help identify and intervene in trafficking cases. However, ‘most [of these people] do not identify the situation and know where to go to in terms of reporting,’ she added.21

Harun Omariba, a paralegal officer, said that en­forcing counter-trafficking legislation – which does stipulate heavy penalties (a 25-year jail term or a KSh30 million ([US$270 000] fine) for traffickers – remains a huge challenge due to corruption and because ‘victims cannot report to the authorities for fear of being exposed to the public or being reported to their abusers once they have managed to come back home. Most nurse wounds of sexual abuse,’ said Omariba.22

Male trafficking victims face a unique challenge

Maurice Andati, the chairperson of Global Safe Migration, argued that widespread assumptions that men cannot be victims of trafficking has made it easier for traffickers to target beach boys.23 In his view, the plight of severely exploited male migrants has been overlooked: ‘Society makes it laughable that a boy can be trafficked. We have systems in place and research around women and children trafficking, unlike for the men who are accused of being at fault for their current situation, or taking advantage of the people around them, hence their exploitation.’

The notion that trafficking is a women’s issue has seen victims keep their traumatic experiences to themselves. Kidato Abdallah of Voice Youth Matters admits that communities can be unwelcoming to the beach boys who come home after being trafficked, often branding them with derogatory terms like ‘mke wa mke’ (a woman’s wife, in Kiswahili).24

Andati also points out that most of the perpetrators often change the narrative of the trafficked beach boys, accusing them of being sex offenders. ‘With such threats most of them opt to keep silent and continue serving their “term”,’ he added.25

The lack of shelters specifically for men in Kenya means that many of these male trafficking victims have nowhere to go when they return, and many end up being housed in prisons or remand homes.

For the beach boys, the stigma around being a male victim of trafficking compounds the problem: it means that the victimization of men is less recognized and fewer resources are allocated to supporting male victims. There is a dire need to provide services such as trauma counselling for the victims of such trafficking, and a need to create platforms where cases can be recorded and monitored.


  1. Interview in Matuga, Kwale, 28 July 2021. 

  2. Jeremy Clarke, Older white women join Kenya’s sex tourists, Reuters, 27 November 2007,

  3. Charlotte Attwood, Kenya’s hidden sex tourism in Malindi, BBC, 15 May 2014,

  4. Sarah Jones, The Extent and Effect of Sex Tourism and Sexual Exploitation of Children on the Kenyan Coast, UNICEF and Government of Kenya, December 2006,

  5. Tonny Onyulo, The child sex trade is booming in this Kenyan port city, The World, 8 December 2018,

  6. Interview in Nairobi, 2 August 2021. 

  7. Nita Bhalla, Child sex for a dollar on Kenya’s palm-fringed beaches, Reuters, 14 June 2018,

  8. Interview in Kwale County Headquarters, 27 July 2021. 

  9. Interview at Diani beach, 28 July 2021. 

  10. Interview in Kwale, 27 July 2021. 

  11. Interview in Diani, 27 July 2021. 

  12. Interview in Nairobi, 15 September 2021. 

  13. Gathered over multiple interviews between July and September 2021. 

  14. Interview in Diani, Kwale, 26 July 2021. 

  15. US Department of State, 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report: Kenya,

  16. US Department of State, 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report,

  17. Interview in Kwale County Headquarters, 28 July 2021. 

  18. Interview in Diani, 27 July 2021. 

  19. Phone interview, 10 August 2021. 

  20. Interview in Kwale County Headquarters, 27 July 2021. 

  21. Interview in Kwale, South Coast, 28 July 2021. 

  22. Interview in Kwale, 27 July 2021. 

  23. Interview in Nairobi, 2 August 2021. 

  24. Interview in Kwale, 27 July 2021. 

  25. Phone interview, 10 August 2021.