Global refugee flows have reached the highest levels in history as over twenty-five million people have been forced to leave their home countries. Many refugees already face perilous journeys, harsh living conditions in camps, and discrimination in host countries, but they are also at risk of a human rights violation too often insufficiently addressed in security and conflict prevention efforts: human trafficking. Among migrants traveling to Europe through North Africa, alone, more than 70 percent have been trafficked or exploited, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Conflict-induced displacement can increase the risk of trafficking. Capitalizing on their vulnerability, traffickers deceive refugees into fraudulent travel and employment arrangements. Between 2012 and 2015, some Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide in Myanmar boarded ships to Malaysia or Thailand with the promise of lucrative jobs. Instead, traffickers kept them captive at sea in fishing vessels—where they were deprived of water and food, and some were raped, tortured, or killed—or in slave-like camps at the Malaysia-Thailand border, demanding up to $2,000 for their release. In Libya, traffickers have taken advantage of the increased flow of African refugees and migrants on their way to Europe. Some migrants have paid fees to be smuggled to Tripoli, but are then abandoned in the desert or southern cities of the country where they are susceptible to trafficking. Armed groups impose "passage taxes" along the migration routes and some migrants have been bought and sold on "open slave markets" or held arbitrarily in detention centers where they are subject to forced labor and sexual violence.
Punitive immigration policies and lack of access to safe migration options further exacerbate refugees’ vulnerability to trafficking. Many trafficking victims refrain from seeking government and law enforcement assistance, fearing not only arrest due to their irregular migration status, but also retributive violence from their exploiters. In Venezuela, hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the ongoing humanitarian crisis have not been permitted legal status in neighboring countries. Without official documentation, access to resources, and awareness of their rights, they become easy targets of traffickers. Along the border to Colombia, for example, Venezuelan women report that armed groups demand sex as payment for crossing.
More than 70 percent of detected trafficking victims are female. Displaced women and girls face specific vulnerabilities to human trafficking—particularly sex trafficking and forced marriage—due to long-standing gender inequalities and ineffective social and legal protection systems, conditions that are exacerbated during conflict and crisis settings. In Central America, women migrants fleeing gang violence and poverty have been forced into prostitution by their smugglers, and in China, traffickers have targeted female North Korean refugees and forced them into marriages. A sex trafficking ring in Lebanon recruited Syrian women and girls with false promises of employment and then subjected them to sexual exploitation, abuse, and forced abortions.
Human trafficking is both a grave human rights violation and a security concern that not only funds transnational criminal groups but also inhibits long-term stability. Survivors of human trafficking, particularly those subjected to sex trafficking, often experience lasting stigma and marginalization from community members. Consequently, women and girls may face limited employment and marriage opportunities, which fuel intergenerational poverty and isolation as their support structures unravel. By undermining community relations and development, human trafficking in displacement settings fosters broader economic instability detrimental to rebuilding and peacebuilding efforts.
Despite these security implications, U.S. policies on human trafficking too often remain disconnected from broader conflict-prevention and security initiatives. In order to more effectively prevent human trafficking in refugees and advance peace and stability, the U.S. government should: invest in research on the relationship between human trafficking, conflict, and migration; ensure that its policies on conflict and security issues better incorporate human trafficking (and vice-versa); and prioritize prevention, justice, and protection efforts for refugee trafficking survivors.
Only by acknowledging the intersection between conflict-induced migration and human trafficking can security efforts be effective in a world with record numbers of displaced people.
For more analysis on the security implications of human trafficking—and recommendations for the United States—please read the discussion paper on “The Security Implications of Human Trafficking,” authored by Jamille Bigio and Rachel Vogelstein. For further reading, also see CFR’s “Modern Slavery” InfoGuide and the CFR roundtable discussion on Human Trafficking, Conflict, and Security with James Cockayne, director of the Center for Policy Research at United Nations University, and Sarah E. Mendelson, distinguished service professor of public policy and head of Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College in Washington, DC, and former U.S. representative to the Economic and Social Council at the United Nations
This post is authored by Alexandra Bro, research associate with the Women and Foreign Policy program, and Mallory Matheson, former intern with the Women and Foreign Policy program.