Human Trafficking and Humanitarian Crises
Updated: Apr 2, 2022
I am an expert on human trafficking, with twenty-five years experience defending against human rights abuses directed at vulnerable people, like refugees, during humanitarian crises. And yet, I was reluctant to write this post because everyone has an opinion about human trafficking, regardless of their expertise. I have had people accuse me of not caring about abducted children (using more pejorative language) because I spoke about labor trafficking -- at a talk where my own bewildered child was in the audience. I have had Senate staffers "pick my brain" on a holiday weekend, only to tell me that they were using my thoughts to write talking points for Ashton Kutcher, who would receive billions of dollars from the US government for his tech related anti trafficking foundation. I have been advised by Ashley Judd that my nuanced expertise was too clunky, and that I should "work on my elevator pitch." I have been threatened with libel suits by a man who created a charity aimed at child abduction and claimed that my work offended his reputation. On international women's day, EuroNews asked me to tell viewers "how women and children were inherently vulnerable" to sex trafficking. And when I replied that we are not inherently vulnerable, that systems of power around the world render us vulnerable, they cut me off. Just this week, I received a lengthy gaslighting email (copied to hundreds), stating that my expertise is invalid because "one is too many;" as if I disagreed. In short, human trafficking is not a topic that invites expertise or nuance. I've had a lot of vitriol aimed at me for daring to share my thoughts, even after having been asked to do so. But today, I saw the first of what will undoubtedly be many articles about human trafficking of Ukrainian women and children and I realized that, once again, we risk aiming our attention, our laws, our media, our law enforcement, and our programmatic responses in the wrong direction. I care enough about the exploitation of other humans to continue to work on it in spite of the foregoing. So, once more into the breach.
The article prompting this blog was published today by BBC. As is often the case, the headline, How the Sex Trade Preys on Ukraine's Refugees, and the unsubstantiated content both focused on sex, and raised unfounded fears of abduction. This does not mean abduction does not happen, nor that people are not trafficked for sex. They can be, and I have represented some who were. But, if we want to really advise people about when and what to be careful of, and where to focus our protection and prevention strategies, these sensationalist headlines do not help. The most common and realistic human trafficking scenario was introduced late in the BBC article. It was taken from a social media post by a woman who says she is a Ukrainian who recently fled to Germany. The BBC journalist reported: "the man who offered her a room confiscated her papers and demanded she clean his house for free. He then started to make sexual advances as well. She refused -- and he kicked her out on the street." This is what human trafficking most commonly looks like for refugees. A vulnerable person in need of help accepts a room or a job. The landlord or employer then takes their documents, making it difficult for the person to leave, and rendering them even more invisible, more cut off, more dependent, and more vulnerable. The employer or landlord then demands free or underpaid labor. Once the employer feels the power differential, they may add in sexual harassment or sexual abuse. Human traffickers can be and often are women. Victims of human trafficking can be and often are men. LGBTQ people are often even more vulnerable, as are discriminated against minorities. This is because the people who experience the most economic and social and legal precarity are the most vulnerable to severe exploitation.
This is what the public and potential victims need to know and guard against. This is what people need to be protected from. This is what human trafficking all too commonly looks like for refugees; it looks like a person likely in need of shelter, food, employment, money, the ability to see what their futures might look like, the ability to hope -- and another person who offers a solution, with exploitative conditions or abuse attached. Refugees and people fleeing their homes, hungry, bewildered and in fear -- they fit this profile, unless governments step up to offer effective help.
Another too common scenario which people don't like to hear about involves groups, often faith based, "taking children" out of an unsafe area during a humanitarian crisis without parental or government consent. Sometimes the groups claim that the children are orphans, without checking to see if they are. Sometimes they are well-intentioned, sometimes not. This is never legal or advisable or permissible in any sense.
Still another scenario common in some humanitarian crises involves desperate refugee parents, terrified that their (usually girl) children will be abducted for sex trafficking because they too have read the lurid headlines, or that they will starve in a famine, who marry their girl children to a much older man, for "protection." The feared trafficking may or may not have ever happened, but here, as above, the "solution" (forced marriage at a very young age) is the harm.
The point to each of the foregoing scenarios, which are not exhaustive, is that there are experts on human trafficking during humanitarian crises who have seen and responded to these scenarios. The media may mislead the public and potential victims about human trafficking because the lurid headlines bring eyes to their story. But if you are giving money or telling a story about, or devising a program aimed at human trafficking, be aware that there are people with expertise on what refugees really should be aware of, where money will be well spent or wasted, and how best to protect against human trafficking, at each stage of displacement, which might last for years.
One set of broad solutions at the early stages of a humanitarian crisis includes making certain that refugees have immediate work authorization and employment, so they are not vulnerable to traffickers who would exploit their financial precarity. Another requires government provided (and vetted) housing. A third involves making certain children are immediately enrolled in school. There are many more, which experts are willing to share, and which will be nuanced and tailored to the circumstances at hand.
It is easy to make assumptions about the harms that are likely to befall refugees and people fleeing humanitarian crises. They are, after all, among the world's most vulnerable people -- outside of state protection; with little or no knowledge of language, law and customs; and too often without even daily survival needs being met. The problem is that almost every time we make assumptions about human trafficking, even assumptions that seem to make a lot of sense, they are wrong. When our assumptions are wrong, we direct our attention towards the wrong people, and the wrong problems. And while out attention is misdirected, people actually are exploited and damaged and trafficked.
I have written about this for decades, and you can find many of my articles here. I implore anyone with the ear of law and policy makers, the media, donors, and those funding projects aimed at human trafficking efforts to confer with experts before devising your programs. We have spent years failing to do so and making the same mistakes again and again. Let's not this time.