Sarah Elliott

There has been growing recognition of the heightened need to respond to human trafficking in contexts of humanitarian crisis. Although there have been some positive developments, actors need to take into account pre-existing mechanisms and policies to develop more robust humanitarian protection programmes and counter-trafficking initiatives.

The grave risk posed by human trafficking in humanitarian crises has recently gained serious attention by the international community. Horrifying accounts of sexual and labour exploitation at the hands of armed groups, such as ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army, illustrate the most extreme manifestation of the problem.

A growing body of evidence has shown that humanitarian crises can exacerbate pre-existing human trafficking trends – and give rise to new ones. However, as recent research from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) argues, this is often overlooked and not incorporated into humanitarian responses. The IOM research draws on case studies from Syria, Haiti and Nepal, as well as mixed migration situations, such as those seen in East Africa and the Horn. Earlier reports, including that of the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (focusing on Jordan) and the Freedom Fund (focusing on Lebanon), came to similar conclusions.

‘Trafficking in persons’ is defined in international law, and criminalized in most states. ‘Crisis’, however, is a descriptive term, often used to describe any number of emergencies, such as armed conflicts, natural disasters and large, protracted and/or mixed movements of refugees and migrants. When searching for practical responses to this issue, I argue that we first need to be clearer about the situations in which these two phenomena come together and, secondly, that we need to build on existing tools and applicable legal frameworks, to avoid overburdening humanitarian actors already faced with competing priorities. There have already been several positive developments in this regard.

The link between humanitarian crises and human trafficking

Some forms of human trafficking are a direct result of crises, such as forced armed recruitment of child soldiers, the demand for exploitative sexual services by armed groups (and even peacekeepers) or the enslavement of persecuted ethnic minorities. The links between other forms of human trafficking and crisis situations are less direct, such as the opportunistic trafficking of displaced people for the purposes of forced labour in neighbouring countries or cases where children are trafficked into the international adoption market.

It can sometimes be difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain whether a crisis situation has led to an increase in trafficking in persons, or whether the arrival of aid workers has merely shed new light on previously unreported trends. Regardless, it is essential that any counter-trafficking response outlives the humanitarian imperative.

When tailoring a robust counter-trafficking response in a crisis context that needs to be reconciled with the existing responsibilities of humanitairan humanitarian actors, it is important to not only identify the type and cause of trafficking taking place, but to identify the crisis at hand, and to take into account the country, and its applicable legal, policy and coordination frameworks.

Acts of human trafficking are often associated with other violations of international law within the crisis-affected country or the region. These include humanitarian law, international criminal law or the international principles and guidelines concerning internally displaced people. For this reason, in the absence of a functioning protection pathway for victims of trafficking, other coordination structures and policies may assist. These could be the UN cluster response in humanitarian crises, the Refugee Coordination Model in situations with refugee populations, or the work of the Platform on Disaster Displacement.

In addressing the needs of people displaced by natural disasters, actors may already be engaged in responding to forms of exploitation not labelled ‘human trafficking’ as such, including forced marriage (through the Sexual and Gender Based Violence Area of Responsibility of the Global Protection Cluster), or the recruitment of child soldiers through UNICEF’s Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism on grave violations of children’s rights in situations of armed conflict.

One particularly underutilized protection response to trafficking in crisis is refugee status. Armed conflict may be a cause of internal displacement and refugee movements across borders. Targeting people for exploitation – such as women for forced marriage or sexual enslavement  – could be part of the conflict itself as combatants aim to displace or even eliminate opposing groups. Victims of such exploitation should be granted refugee status in the countries they flee to, and protected from non-refoulement. In turn, this form of legal protection helps reduce their vulnerability to being trafficked in their new location. Where that risk remains, they should be resettled. While some host states provide permanent legal stay to victims of trafficking formally identified as such, most do not. For these reasons, ensuring that victims of trafficking also have access to asylum procedures, both in the region of an armed conflict and further afield, should be considered an integral part of the anti-trafficking response. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recently published Issue Brief No 3 from ICAT (the Inter-Agency Co-ordination Group Against Trafficking In Persons), which gives more detail on the relationship between trafficking in persons and refugee status.

Enabling victims of trafficking to safely seek international criminal redress is also an important yet overlooked counter-trafficking in crisis response, both in terms of ending impunity for trafficking committed as a war crime or crime against humanity, and in tackling the root causes of the crime itself.

Further, targeted, preventative action taken to help relieve the economic scarcity that often ensues in protracted conflict or refugee situations can help mitigate the risk of people falling into negative coping mechanisms or risky behaviour in order to survive, particularly the most vulnerable. These strategies include linking financial assistance to education and social services, and considering of the cost borne by families not sending their children to work within such assistance efforts.

Calls for more robust counter-trafficking responses in crisis situations, however, may not translate into specific actions in every case. The safety of all parties and the potential for conflicting priorities must also be considered in any such response programme. Given the chaos inherent in crises, identifying trafficked people and managing individual cases may be impossible or even unethical if the services victims need do not exist. Where government actors are known to be involved in perpetrating the crime, the safety of humanitarian actors may be jeopardized by addressing this issue head-on. In such instances, where a direct counter-trafficking response inside the crisis itself is not possible, identifying those groups most at risk, and improving their protection in general through monitoring and referral pathways, might be the only feasible counter-trafficking in crisis strategy to pursue.

Some positive steps

Despite these challenges, providing humanitarian actors with information about how human trafficking affects the groups they serve, and how it can be identified, prevented or addressed in the specific context at hand is a worthwhile investment. Much can be done through local initiatives and targeted campaigns that raise awareness about reported trafficking recruitment methods, or by linking up humanitarian actors with existing national referral mechanisms for victims of trafficking that may continue to function despite the crisis.  

There have been several recent developments that suggest we are on a positive trajectory. For example, there is now growing recognition within UN bodies that responding to trafficking and exploitation can be strengthened further as part of emergency humanitarian programming.

UN Security Council Resolution 2331 (2017) recognizes that the response to trafficking in conflicts could be strengthened and calls upon all relevant UN agencies, including the UNHCR, to develop their joint capabilities and cooperate more effectively. Meanwhile, UN Security Council Resolution 2388 (2018) focuses on people displaced by armed conflict and recognizes the need to enhance the protection of any displaced person who is either a victim of trafficking or at risk of becoming one.

In terms of specific agencies’ progress on the issue, an Anti-Trafficking Task Team has been formed as part of the Global Protection Cluster – an established initiative that coordinates inter-agency approaches to protection in humanitarian responses. This task team (of which I was previously a part) will aim to develop a collective position on anti-trafficking interventions in humanitarian responses and to provide recommendations on how best to integrate them systematically into the Global Protection Cluster.

This year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime will issue guidelines on countering trafficking in persons in conflict zones. Work on developing these has benefited from an expert round table of security, humanitarian and protection actors. The recently published UNHCR Guidelines on International Protection Number 12 also give more clarity on conflict-induced refugee movements for asylum decision-makers, while the ICAT Issue Brief No 2 provides recommendations to states and the international community on what kinds of thinking and action are needed to respond to trafficking in crisis situations.  

It is heartening to see that human trafficking in contexts of crisis has been placed at the forefront of the international agenda as a concern that needs to be addressed through an evidence-based and cross-sectoral approach. However, the recommendations for further action have, in my view, often been shrouded in a certain lack of precision and contextual confusion. It is essential to assess with greater clarity not only the cause and type of human trafficking taking place, but the type of crisis at hand, the applicable legal frameworks at the national and international level and the link between the reported trafficking and the crisis itself. Humanitarian actors should consider which existing mechanisms could be applied and which practical interventions taken in the quest for a streamlined humanitarian response to human trafficking.