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Caroline O’Leary is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which brought a deserved spotlight to the 5,551 cases of human sex trafficking reported nationally in 2016. Across the globe, however, a parallel crisis gets far less attention: violent conflict—which creates weakened legal infrastructure and increases economic instability—has left tens of millions vulnerable to sex trafficking.
The sexual abuse and trafficking of refugees is a little-acknowledged facet of the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East. However, it is a very real part of life for many forced to flee their homes because of violence from Syria and Iraq. The total number of people forcibly displaced by conflict reached 65.3 million by the end of 2015. These refugees face a dire economic situation; for instance, 90 percent of Syrian refugees are living below their host country’s national poverty line. As former Secretary of State John Kerry once noted, “Wherever we find poverty and lack of opportunity…we find not just vulnerability to trafficking, but zones of impunity where traffickers can prey on their victims.”
Migration to Europe for work is considered a perilous necessity for many unable to support themselves or their families. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 1,883 migrants have died so far in 2017—70 percent while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The conditions in which migrants travel can not only be deadly, but also open venues through which they can become ensnared in sex trafficking rings. In some circumstances, migrants voluntarily make the decision to take on sex work—which smugglers promise will be lucrative and not require foreign language skills or documentation—as a means of surviving financially. However, upon agreeing to this work, many are abused and treated as sex slaves as well as taken further from home, where they often fall deeper into poverty.
Others are unaware of their coercion into the trade until it is too late. Smugglers promise safe passage into Europe in return for payments that run on average from $3,400 to $6,800, according to a 2015 Interpol report. However, smugglers frequently use physical and sexual abuse to demand more money from their victims than initially agreed upon. The IOM notes that this exchange often leads to sex trafficking, where victims are “repeatedly raped or forced to prostitute themselves in near slavery condition” in order to pay back their “debts.” Despairingly, refugee sex trafficking victims often then find themselves unable to report abuse due to their legal status, for fear that alerting authorities may result in their own arrest rather than that of their abuser.
Child refugees are decidedly vulnerable as well. They currently account for more than half of the refugee population, and often find themselves parent-less and destitute. At least ten thousand unaccompanied minor refugees have been reported missing after reaching Europe, and many of them are believed to have fallen victim to trafficking and sexual exploitation. Europol has also found crossover between the gangs that help smuggle refugees into the European Union and those exploiting them for sex and slavery.
Since this illegal trade takes place largely underground, it is difficult to craft responsive policy. However, a humanitarian crisis of this proportion demands attention and deserves the response of policymakers. To combat sex trafficking and abuse among refugees, the United States should:
- Increase contributions to refugee resettlement programs to provide alternative work options and asylum in refugees’ new home countries. While potentially highly impactful, this would be difficult to implement due given the current political climate in the United States. The massive scope of the population in need of resettlement is also a significant challenge.
- Continue to encourage international reflection periods similar to what the European Union has. Such periods provide a reprieve from deportation to allow identified sex victims to seek emergency health and aid services while being legally classified as victims of crime, thereby mitigating any concerns victims may have regarding reporting their abuse.
- Strengthen legal systems for victimized refugees in order to empower them to get in contact with law enforcement authorities, should they wish to. The benefits of doing so contribute not only to individual refugee empowerment, but also the long-term goal of bringing down sex trafficking rings.
Sex trafficking is just one symptom of an enormous refugee crisis—the largest since World War II. To respond to such an issue will take years of cohesive anti-sex-trafficking strategy on the parts of governments around the world—particularly around areas of conflict. Implementing policies that streamline the legal aid and rehabilitation of victims, however, is an achievable way to humanize refugees in a time of uncertainty and fear.