Images of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean have shocked the world in recent years—sparking conversation, inspiring political summits and challenging the collective responsibility of the global community to refugees. But behind the images not seen and the headlines not written are stories of exploitation that refugees risk at every step of their journey to safety.
Nobody knows these stories better than grassroots activists like Sister Gabriella Bottani, S.M.C., and her Talitha Kum sisters, an international network of religious sisters that works against human trafficking, or modern-day slavery.
“Our hearts bleed when we see those pictures. The irony is that those who survive often become unfortunate victims of trafficking—their attempt to improve their lives turns out to be dehumanizing and can lead to their deaths,” Sister Bottani said, speaking to 150 faith-based activists at the International Conference on Human Trafficking within and from Africa. The conference was hosted by Caritas Internationalis and the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant People in Abuja, Nigeria, in September.
The perils of trafficking are a risk not only for those who cross seas into Europe but for migrants seeking sanctuary amidst humanitarian crises across the globe. This is especially true in Africa, where half of all human trafficking victims originate and where failed states and ongoing conflict allow impunity for traffickers intent on profiting off victims of war.
Exploitation can occur at every step of a refugee’s journey: from the point that persecution begins or conflict erupts, while en route to a safer place, at first arrival at a new site and while waiting years for a durable solution in their host countries. As mass migration trends hit all-time highs and protection mechanisms fail to keep up, the nexus of human trafficking and displacement further complicates the refugee response. The problem deserves more concerted attention.
Whether in Eritrea or Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) or Burundi, Yemen or Sudan, when refugees flee conflict they often also flee exploitation. Regardless of the conflict, armed groups are known to take advantage of local communities, subjecting them to forced labor for valuable resources, military service for reinforcement or sex work for their own benefit. Thus, warring parties often become human traffickers and war-affected populations their victims.
Rebecca, for example, fled last year to Uganda after being forced to work by rebel groups in the Congolese jungle. Selam* fled from Eritrea to Ethiopia to avoid state-sponsored forcible military conscription, a system which has enslaved her brother for 14 years. And Safia* fled to Ethiopia last year after rebel groups in her Yemeni home threatened to take her as their sex slave.
“I came because the Houthi rebels frequently came to my home,” she recalls. “They were taking girls away. I tried to hide and resist this, but after a while I realized that [one rebel] really wanted me to be his slave for cleaning and for sex. To them, girls are like objects, like a chair or a window.”
These women fled not only war but also trafficking forced upon so many war-affected populations. Caritas has similarly reported that militia groups in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria often take advantage of the chaos of conflict to abduct women as sex slaves for soldiers or commodities to sell to brothels, nightclubs or individual men across borders. Young boys are frequently forced to enlist in warring parties or gangs in Central America, South Sudan, Somalia and beyond.
‘No Mercy From Beasts’
For those who manage to flee, doing so autonomously is rarely an option; instead many resort to hiring smugglers. Sometimes these smugglers are merely offering a service, albeit illegal, and facilitating movement in the absence of safe and legal means to do so. Other times, smugglers are linked with human traffickers to whom they sell their customers en route.
“You can’t expect mercy from beasts….both the kidnappers and smugglers. There’s no difference between them; they’re all working together in the desert,” said Mebrahtu, an Eritrean refugee living in an Ethiopian refugee camp.
Another camp resident, Mohammed, found himself in this situation when he fled Eritrea to reach Europe. While in Egypt, his smuggler sold him to a trafficking ring who tortured him and his wife until they could pay ransom. Unfortunately, the money was not enough and she was killed by traffickers who removed her organs to later sell.
The criminalization of refugee movement on major migration routes—like in the Sahara or through Central America—forces people to flee in secrecy. If found, they risk being arbitrarily or indefinitely held in detention centers or deported back to the countries they had fled. Increasingly, detention and deportation practices are funded by major donor countries that pass on their asylum obligations to countries known to commit abuses, like Sudan or Eritrea. This has created ideal circumstances for traffickers to take advantage of the vulnerability of migrants and disparities in migration policies.
Falling through asylum cracks
Even when refugees reach their destinations of asylum they are in danger of further exploitation. Some refugees arrive indebted to their smugglers while others—like unaccompanied children or single women—are easy targets for human traffickers.
Whether in farms, factories or fishing boats, exploited migrant workers—refugees among them—fuel the economies so many others depend on. Medecins Sans Frontières estimates that 18,000 African migrants work in slave-like conditions in the fields of Italy. The International Organisation for Migration has reported that 80 percent of Nigerian women who make it to Europe end up in sex trafficking. Interpol believes most of the 10,000 refugee children who went missing in Europe in January have “fallen into the hands of organized trafficking syndicates.”
These instances are exacerbated by the exclusion of refugees from the formal economy, forcing them to work in industries with little oversight or security.
In urban settings, refugees sometimes must take desperate measures to survive by working dangerous jobs in informal factories, people’s homes or street begging. According to Caritas, the “increase in trafficking [in Lebanon] is thought to be explained by the financial difficulties faced by refugees in dealing with ever-higher costs of living, along with the ban on refugees working.” Similar parallels are found among urban refugees in Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa and beyond.
In refugee camps, safety mechanisms, especially for the most vulnerable like unaccompanied minors, are inadequate to keep up with protection concerns. In Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, the Jesuit Refugee Service protection centers for women and children are over capacity with long waiting lists of people who have experienced or are at risk of abuse, like forced marriage, child abduction or sexual slavery. If camps are not well managed, they can become shopping centers for traffickers.
Ending a crime against humanity
When countries prohibit children from reuniting with their families or restrict refugees from working in safe and legal conditions or fail to ensure refugee camps are safe for the most vulnerable, they turn their backs on those at the brink of losing their humanity.
“Exploitation of human beings is a crime against humanity. When the dignity of the human person is destroyed, we also destroy the abilities for humans to build relationships and communities that could contribute to the common good,” said Manila’s Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, president of Caritas Internationalis, at the conference in Abuja.
We can all join together to play a stronger role in tackling this crime against humanity.
Faith-based and humanitarian organisations, like J.R.S., already accompany and serve communities vulnerable to trafficking. But we can all do more to stand against exploitation by improving identification mechanisms, lobbying for laws that protect migrants and victims and offering more life-saving services to all refugees and human trafficking survivors who come to our doorsteps.
Ultimately, however, there must be political will to keep victims of conflict from falling through the cracks of inadequate asylum systems into the hands of traffickers.
Angela Wells is the Eastern Africa Communications Officer for Jesuit Refugee Service.
*Names have been changed for reasons of security