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Human Trafficking and Refugees: Exploitation of the Highly Vulnerable

By Ramneek Singh, edited by Sanaa Sharma

Refugees are one of the most vulnerable groups on this planet. Displaced from their homes, they are forced to travel to unknown lands for asylum. During their journey, they face endless challenges, including inhuman living conditions in camps and discrimination in host countries. But they also increasingly face another risk: human trafficking. Over 70 percent of refugees/migrants traveling to Europe through North Africa alone have been trafficked or exploited, according to the International Organization for Migration (Bro and Matheson). This article aims to examine how refugees end up in trafficking rings, the factors that facilitate the trafficking of refugees, and what governments can do to prevent this grave violation of their human rights.

Traffickers thrive by capitalizing on vulnerability; hence, refugees are an easy target because, in many cases, they have lost everything. One tactic traffickers use to lure refugees are promises of a better life. These promises are then used solely for exploitation. One such promise is employment. Having left everything behind, refugees will easily fall victim to traffickers who promise lucrative jobs (Bro and Matheson). For example, from 2012-2015, “Rohingya refugees fleeing genocide in Myanmar boarded ships to Malaysia or Thailand” with this exact promise (Bro and Matheson). Some were then kept captive at sea by traffickers “where they were deprived of water and food, and some were raped, tortured, or killed” (Bro and Matheson). Others were put into “slave-like camps at the Malaysia-Thailand border” (Bro and Matheson). Refugees can also face trafficking risks if they are left isolated with no form of protection for themselves. In Libya, African migrants will often pay fees to be “smuggled to Tripoli” in search of a better life (Bro and Matheson). However, they are “then abandoned in the desert or southern cities of the country where they are susceptible to trafficking” (Bro and Matheson). As a result, “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” (Bro and Matheson). Some general factors that make refugees especially vulnerable (other than the ones discussed above) are “economic instability, loss of important community networks, dangerous migration routes, and restrictive immigration barriers” (Dudley). Both of these examples are deeply disturbing, but not exhaustive. Refugees all across the world face similar risks.

Furthermore, if we want to understand how to prevent refugees from falling into the hands of traffickers, we must first dive deeper into the factors that place refugees in a vulnerable position. One such factor is “punitive immigration policies and lack of access to safe migration options” (Bro and Matheson). Fearing arrest, perhaps because of an illegal status, many refugees will not seek aid from governments or law enforcement. Others fear that if they do reach out for help, they may face “retributive violence from their exploiters” (Bro and Matheson). This fear and distrust in the political and legal system causes many trafficking victims to simply suffer in silence. Another factor is the centuries-long unequal treatment of women. Female refugees face particular risks because, even in modern times, there are “ineffective social and legal protection systems” for women, which are only worsened in times of crisis (Bro and Matheson). As a result, women are easily placed into sex trafficking rings or forced marriages (Bro and Matheson). Another factor is the loss of community support networks and the resulting social and cultural isolation (UNHCR). Imagine not only losing all the material things that you own, but also your social life and the cultural environment (including any norms or traditions) that you grew up with. Imagine being placed into a foreign society, where you may not understand the language, may not understand the culture, or where you may not have any friends. It doesn’t end there. This social and cultural isolation results in a lack of access to “basic resources and livelihood opportunities” (UNHCR). If you do not understand the language, how will you find jobs? If you do not have any friends or acquaintances in the country, who will help you navigate the system? Finally, how will you go about making friends if you lack understanding of the culture? Indeed, there are endless barriers.

However, these factors can be mitigated through effective policies that do not place refugees in compromising situations and investments in community support systems dedicated to helping refugees. Such actions will not only aid these individuals in building a better life for themselves, but will in turn weaken criminal organizations that profit off of refugee exploitation, making the country itself much safer. More specifically, governments should “invest in research on the relationship between conflict, migration, and human trafficking; ensure that policies on conflict and security issues better incorporate human trafficking (and vice-versa); and prioritize prevention, justice, and protection efforts for refugee trafficking survivors”(Bro and Matheson). Countries like Italy and Libya that are putting in place extreme measures to reduce the number of migrants should “act in a ‘peacekeeping’ capacity to reduce tensions between the local police forces and militaries and the asylum-seekers, while ensuring the safety and well-being of the asylum seekers” (Dudley). Governments should also “cooperate with UNHCR and other refugee organizations to provide refugees with adequate shelter, food, sanitation and medical services” (Dudley). These are just a few of the steps that can be taken to place refugees in a much safer position.

There is a need for increased awareness and acknowledgement that there is a deep-rooted and disturbing intersection between human trafficking and refugees. Even at this very moment, in some parts of the world, helpless refugees are being exploited at the hands of traffickers, emboldened by ineffective laws and a lack of attention from governments. Society and institutions need to stop believing that refugees are the problem. This belief has led to law and policies that remain focused on keeping migrants and refugees out. These prevention policies are having the opposite effect on trafficking, enabling the exploitation and trafficking of refugees and migrants. Lack of safe pathways make desperate people seek alternative and more dangerous options. These alternative options usually include smuggling, which enables vulnerable people to be potentially trafficked. Therefore, there is an urgent need to shed this belief and face the real problem: the criminal organizations who target these high-risk individuals and exploit them for their illegal operations. The grasp of trafficking on refugee communities can be loosened only when society and governments acknowledge and recognize this issue.

Works Cited

Bro, Alexandra, and Mallory Matheson. “Fleeing Home: Refugees and Human


Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 31 Dec. 2019,

Dudley, Olivia. “The Refugee Crisis Is a Human Trafficking Crisis: How Europe's

Approach to

the Refugee Crisis Enables Trafficking and Exploitation.” Human Trafficking Center, 12 Nov. 2020, the-refugee-crisis-is-a-human-trafficking-crisis-how-europes-approach-to-the-refugee-crisis-enables-trafficking-and-exploitation/.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Trafficking in Persons.” UNHCR,

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