Issue 65 - Article 2

Human trafficking in crises: a neglected protection concern

October 29, 2015
Laura Lungarotti, Sarah Craggs and Agnes Tillinac
Families fleeing fighting in Kobane board IOM buses to Kurdistan

A migrant woman stranded in the midst of conflict in Iraq with no means of finding a safe haven elsewhere engages in survival sex with a bus driver. A displaced child in Kurdistan works hazardous unpaid jobs in exchange for food and shelter. Are these victims of trafficking? In conflicts and natural disasters, it is not always easy to draw a line between abuse of power, abuse of a position of vulnerability, forced labour, exploitation and human trafficking. Migrants, displaced people, other mobile groups, host communities and specific groups or individuals, including women, children, adolescents and ethnic minorities, are often victims of trafficking; crises tend to exacerbate pre-existing exposure to risks, threats, abuse and exploitation, and introduce new risks and threats.

In Iraq, recent research and reports Since November 2014, the IOM has conducted research on human trafficking in regional crises in Iraq (including the impact of the Syria crisis), Libya and Tunisia. See See also reports from the United Nations Mission in Iraq at show that specific groups, such as Yazidi women and children, have been abducted by ISIL for the purpose of sexual exploitation and slavery-like practices, including forced marriage, either in Iraq or in neighbouring Syria. In Iraq and Libya, there are reports of migrant workers being held by militia groups such as ISIL in debt bondage, tortured for financial extortion or ransom A similar form of human trafficking has been noted in the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. See, for example, M. van Reisen and C. Rijken, ‘Sinai Trafficking: Origin and Definition of a New Form of Human Trafficking’, Social Inclusion, vol. 3, no. 1, 2015. or used for forced labour or sexual exploitation. In Nigeria, abduction of specific religious groups has been one of Boko Haram’s terror techniques, and in the Central African Republic people fleeing civil and political crisis have faced sexual exploitation at bus stations and transit sites. In all of these instances, discrimination, neglect, exclusion and weak national structures provide fertile ground in which exploitation and human trafficking can flourish.

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking has three key elements: an act (recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons), using means of coercion or threat in order to control an individual for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation may take various forms: sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, forced begging, organ removal, slavery and slavery-like practices. In the case of children, only two of these three elements (act and exploitation) need to be present to define trafficking.

Why is human trafficking so poorly addressed in crises?

First and foremost, determining what amounts to a crime of trafficking is the prerogative of the state. In relation to the MENA regional crises, Syria and Iraq have anti-trafficking legislation in force; Libya and Tunisia are yet to pass national anti-trafficking laws (in the latter a draft anti-trafficking law is under legislative review). In Iraq, legislation against human trafficking was passed in 2012, resulting in the establishment of a specific department within the Ministry of Interior and a Central Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons (CCCT). Since the upsurge in violence in 2013, many activities have had to be reformulated or put on hold. The anti-trafficking response in crisis contexts such as Iraq is further constrained by the limited number of non-governmental organisations specifically equipped to respond to this crime and protect its victims.

Despite increasing accounts of human trafficking in crisis, humanitarian actors often lack tailored, specific and systematic anti-trafficking tools or knowledge. Human trafficking risks are often not fully understood or recognised by first responders at the onset of crises. There are grey areas between forced labour, exploitation, abduction and trafficking, and so determining whether someone is a victim of trafficking or labour exploitation or a smuggled migrant can at times be tricky. In Iraq, reports indicate that some migrant workers fleeing areas under Islamic State (IS) control, whether held captive at some point or not, did not want to (or could not) leave Iraq before they had settled debts related to their initial entry into the country (i.e. smuggling) or conditions of work. Without more details of their specific situation, these workers – perhaps wrongly – could have been identified as smuggled migrants or as exploited/ detained and trafficked migrant workers at one stage or another. Beyond the legal consequences, misidentification could also significantly affect a migrant worker’s access to tailored anti-trafficking assistance.

The general lack of knowledge among humanitarian actors on the definitional complexities of human trafficking and responses to it in times of crisis does not help in raising awareness on the issue. Some forms of human trafficking, such as the slavery-like practices suffered by Yazidi women and girls in Iraq, might be responded to within measures to restore the dignity and safety of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence implemented by humanitarian agencies, but other cases fall between the cracks. In Iraq, cases of migrants smuggled and later trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labour, or cases of abduction for the purpose of trafficking for forced organ removal, may not find an appropriate set of responses within the humanitarian architecture.

Likewise, unknown adults are picking up unaccompanied and separated Syrian children at the border or from refugee camps. This is another issue that requires thorough analysis and understanding of the legal framework and practices predating the crisis, how they have unfolded during the crisis and any new risks associated with human trafficking or other abuse. Child labour currently figures among the Child Protection in Humanitarian Action Minimum Standards (CPMS). Reference guide for child protection humanitarian actors and companion to Sphere Standards: This is testimony, not only to the fact that child labour exists in times of crisis, but also that efforts are under way to integrate measures within the humanitarian response to counter it. However, specific evidence on child trafficking, including trafficking unrelated to child labour, has not been brought to the attention of humanitarian actors. This may be because the humanitarian community has so far considered tackling the issue of human trafficking in Iraq and elsewhere as the business of development actors. Protection actors have expressed interest in learning more about human trafficking during the crisis in Iraq, including how it can be best addressed, and this should be built upon.

Moving forward

Human trafficking in humanitarian crises has come increasingly to the fore, and efforts must continue to ensure that evidence-based, innovative responses to it become an integral part of the humanitarian response. Without falling prey to a status-based approach, humanitarian and protection practitioners need to acknowledge the risk of human trafficking in times of crisis, so that, where protection and assistance needs arise, they can be identified and responded to. Understanding whether a survivor of gender-based violence is also a victim of human trafficking, as well as looking at child victims of trafficking during child protection responses, allows for a more inclusive approach and helps bridge the gap between pre- and post-crisis exploitation. Dedicated experts could be deployed at the onset of a crisis response, and when relevant could steer working groups looking at context-specific responses. They should be deployed with other first responders (e.g. shelter, medical assistance, water and sanitation, food and non-food items) to ensure that the prevention aspects of human trafficking are not overlooked at the outset of a crisis. In Nepal, humanitarian actors were confronted by the risks of human trafficking just days after the earthquake. Even where evidence of trafficking is scant, early interventions could have a significant preventive impact. In Iraq, there is increasing interest among protection actors in constituting a sub-working group (embedded within the Protection Working Group or broader Cluster response) looking at unsafe migration and human trafficking, and this may be a model that could be supported and replicated system-wide.

Lastly, humanitarian and protection practitioners need to develop innovative ways to prevent and ultimately end human trafficking during crises. Mobile anti-trafficking teams compris-ing civil society actors and government officials have proved effective in natural disaster contexts. IOM’s experiences in Haiti and the Philippines have proved that this model could be effective. In conflict, redirecting the work of development-focused civil societies and NGOs to dedicated humanitarian protection work for victims of human trafficking could be explored. Context-specific solutions involv-ing the community and traditional leaders, together with capacity-building activities by humanitarian and early recovery actors, could be effective response strategies.

Laura Lungarotti is the Policy Protection Officer in the Department of Operations and Emergencies at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Geneva. Sarah Craggs works in IOM’s Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as Regional Migrant Assistance Specialist. Agnes Tillinac is a consultant and counter-trafficking expert.


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