July 30, 2018
Today is the World Day against Trafficking in Persons.
Human trafficking is a crime that affects all countries, whether as a source, transit or destination country. Affecting millions of people worldwide, it should concern every person as a violation of basic humanity. Human trafficking is a billion dollar industry, becoming the 2nd largest generator of illicit income, and the fastest growing.
The UN defined human trafficking within the Palermo Protocols in 2000 as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat of use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation”.
Trafficking does not have to mean being taken across borders, it can be over state lines, between counties, from rural to inner city. Often confused with people smuggling, human trafficking is distinct due to the nature of the relationship between the trafficker and the victim.
Disasters can both create and exacerbate vulnerabilities within a population that will increase the chances of human trafficking. Women and girls are often at particular risk in these circumstances, due to gender-based vulnerabilities and discrimination, and the ever present demand for sex workers. Whilst a disaster will result in the arrival of a range of aid organisations and international actors, it cannot be assumed that the privileged positions these hold will not be used to exploit. An investigation by Save the Children found abuse linked to 23 humanitarian, security and peacekeeping organisations during their work in Haiti, South Sudan and the Ivory Coast. This report revealed instances of prostitution, assault, pornography, trafficking and sexual slavery, with children as young as six being identified as victims.
In the rebuilding efforts required after a disaster, there is also the risk of labour abuses and exploitation. After Hurricane Katrina, in the United States businesses began exploiting the immigration status of those that they lured to the US to begin rebuilding efforts. Labour regulations were either unenforced or significantly relaxed in the wake of the 2005 hurricane. The US government became essentially complicit in the exploitation of workers when they suspended the enforcement of job safety and health standards, as well as the requirement to provide fair wages, in the rush to get affected areas of Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi back to business.
Human trafficking can also be difficult to identify. As an illicit activity, care is taken by the trafficker to disguise their intent and activities, as well as the victims’ perception of their victimhood. Many believe that they are not victims, or are scared into silence with threats of violence to either them or their families, or threats of law enforcement and immigration authorities. There is also often a danger that suspected victims of trafficking will be treated like criminals rather than victims of a circumstance or activity out of their control. A new US policy has increased the risk of trafficking victims being deported, whilst simultaneously made it more difficult for law enforcement to investigate crimes of trafficking, which will inevitably result in more challenging identification of victims.
One of the contributing factors found to human trafficking is migration and the forcible displacement of people, which creates an ever increasing pool of potential victims for exploitation. There are around 68.5 million people displaced around the world today, 40% of which are displaced within their own country. With the number of forcibly displaced people continuing to rise through 2017 - 2018 and with disasters expected to displace over 14 million people every year, it is important to consider the potential for increases in human trafficking.
Whilst displacement will continue to occur due to a number of factors, including conflict and economic crises, the leading cause is disasters, which displaced three times as many people than conflicts in 2016. In times of crisis, there will be a certain level of voluntary migration, with people choosing to relocate in search of better economic opportunities and better lives for themselves and their families. However, many of those affected by crises are forcibly displaced from their homes, where they are left with no other alternative but to flee when left with no homes, jobs or basic security. Displacement, either voluntary or forced, will increase an individual’s emotional vulnerability, which, combined with a lack of financial support leaves them less able to protect themselves from exploitation and trafficking.
Since Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico has lost around 6% of its population to migration, with most leaving for mainland US states like Texas, Florida and New York. Even considering the rate of migration from PR to the US before last year, due to the islands ongoing economic crisis, Maria undoubtedly sped up the rate of migration from the island. Unable to guarantee any form of economic stability, both young and old are seeking this on the mainland. Whilst movement from PR to the mainland is as easy as moving between states, there are still no guarantees once they’ve arrived of secure employment, safe housing or the better lives they were hoping for, leading to the high potential of exploitation. With thousands of Puerto Ricans leaving the island, it will also inevitably create a vacuum of people employed within both legitimate and exploitative industries, potentially leading to an increase in cases of Puerto Rico as a destination country for trafficking.
One report by the IOM claims that it is the most disaster affected countries that are in fact more capable of dealing with the presence of human trafficking, suggesting that those in relief camps and disaster areas tend to be more restricted in their movements, which could act to reduce the opportunities of those made vulnerable to trafficking to be moved from these areas. However, an effective response to trafficking requires existing systems already be in place for the prevention and prosecution of these crimes, and for the protection of the victims, an assumption this claim seems to rely upon. Post disaster, a state is also potentially temporarily unable to ensure its citizens’ security, which can often result in the increased presence and strength of organised criminal groups. These groups can then use this instability to prey upon an increasingly vulnerable population. The report also discusses the short-term and geographically isolated nature of natural disasters, although this ignores the long-term effects of disasters; as in Puerto Rico in the 10 months since Hurricane Maria hit, over 4600 deaths can be attributed to Maria, not due to the immediate effects of the hurricane but to the longer term impacts that came with it. The geographical limits of the event itself also ignore the wider reaching implications that migration has on the destination, transit and source country’s economy, infrastructure and even political arena. With another hurricane season already underway in the region, these effects will only worsen if faced with another season like 2017, rendering most of these small island states unable to continue building back from 2017 before having to begin again. Small island states in the Caribbean are bearing the most damaging costs of harsh climate change, due to limited infrastructure and coping capacity coupled with a geographically exposed location. As one of the areas most affected by climate change, the Caribbean can potentially expect to see an increase in the migration of its populations more generally, which in turn could lead to further increases in human trafficking.
Human trafficking remains frequently overlooked in crisis situations by governmental and non-governmental actors, as it has not generally been considered to be a direct consequence of a disaster and there is a lack of immediately available evidence in the increase of trafficking post-disaster. However, counter trafficking preventative measures should be carried out at the onset of a crisis, even if the impact of human trafficking is yet to be revealed. Once the presence of exploitation has already been identified it is already too late, so measures should be put in place to respond proactively to prevent exploitation, rather than falling back on reactive strategies.
Within humanitarian efforts, it has been noted that certain types of human trafficking are addressed over other types, with issues like child labour and forced prostitution, often with a heavy focus on the female victims, as well as illegal adoption, taking precedence over other forms of labour exploitation, or the exploitation of migrants and marginalised groups. If the issue of trafficking is to be addressed at any level, there needs to be an inclusive approach to victims of all genders, and within all forms of trafficking and slavery. The vulnerabilities present in populations before a crisis also need to be factored into any humanitarian response after a crisis, as focus on post-disaster vulnerabilities alone will not fully encompass the realities of human trafficking. Working in collaboration is also key, involving NGOs and humanitarian actors at the international, national and local levels, together with local border forces, police and emergency services, and host governments can ensure a more complete and efficient response. Awareness and education campaigns should be conducted to target the general population, as well as at risk populations, government workers, aid workers and peacekeepers.
At Rescue Global we work by enabling others, connecting military with civil society, and governmental with non-governmental, in order to achieve the most effective response to a disaster. With counter trafficking initiatives it is no different, and by working with nation states through the entire disaster cycle we are able to increase resilience to further disasters and exploitation.