Trafficking Risks and Prevention of Exploitation in Times of Crisis: The Case of the Middle East and North Africa


Aerial View of the Za'atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. © Sharnoff's Global Views 2014

By Sarah Craggs

The sky was blue and the air was crisp. As we turned the corner, the morning sun glistened on the top of a sea of white steel roofs; the car wheels rolled over the gravel. A growing bustle of activity depicted yet another day beginning for tens of thousands of people living and working here.

And so we had arrived at Za’atari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. According to the UN, over three million Syrians have fled to the immediate neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey; and 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. Further, from January to October 2014, almost 35,000 Syrians arrived in Italy after undertaking exhausting journeys across the Mediterranean Sea, 10,000 of who were children. For others, however, the journey ended in tragedy, with lives lost at sea before safety could be reached.

But the Syria crisis is not the only crisis affecting the Middle East and North Africa, nor other parts of the world. The region has unfortunately witnessed a number of different armed conflicts, including protracted crises. And hence, on this cool Arabian winter morning, we could have alternatively found ourselves at an overcrowded immigration detention centre in Libya, in the midst of an ongoing upsurge in violence resulting in complex mobility patterns; or on the Tunisian shores of the Mediterranean responding to the rescue at sea of another boat full of distressed migrants departing from Libya.

The MENA region is a challenging environment, placing significant pressures on existing structures of response; new forms of exploitation are revealing themselves regularly, and enhanced interventions are needed. Indeed, manifestations of human trafficking, abuse and exploitation against migrants pose acute challenges for key responders regardless of the contexts in which taking place. Throughout the world we are seeing  cases of international, intra-regional or even internal human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, slavery and slavery-like practices and reportedly also organ trafficking.

Complex and protracted humanitarian and migration crises, such as armed conflicts, further increase vulnerabilities and in some cases, have led to an increase in human trafficking. In specific instances, the drivers of conflict may even lead to the emergence of specific forms of crisis-related trafficking in persons. But the extent to which trafficking is occurring - in persons, specifically - remains largely overlooked. Where often scant information is available, it is somewhat biased towards attempting to gain an understanding on the trafficking of females for sexual exploitation, overlooking other forms of exploitation. For example, the Syria crisis has importantly raised concern regarding women and children being trafficked for sexual exploitation and forced marriage. But accounts of women, men, children, and migrant workers -- also in the Syria-host countries - becoming victims of forced labour or other human rights abuses, including trafficking in persons, are less discussed.

Practice and the reality on the ground is revealing manifestation of human trafficking in a number of ongoing and previous crises. In early 2014, IOM Lebanon undertook a rapid assessment on the impact of the Syrian crisis on trafficking patterns across the country and identified a number of clear trafficking cases, some highly at-risk populations, and gaps within the needed response. So while we do need to continue to build the evidence base, we also need to respond.

IOM missions are therefore working to: ensure that activities to counter trafficking and to protect vulnerable migrants are integrated within crisis response (project) documents; provide anti-trafficking awareness-raising and advocacy to potential victims, host communities, and key responders within the context of the humanitarian response;  assess trafficking vulnerabilities and needed responses through rapid assessments (or, to soon commence);  build capacity to counter trafficking among humanitarian responders; and provide direct assistance to trafficked persons and at-risk communities.

It is critical that efforts are quickly taken to ensure that anti-trafficking programming cross-cuts all aspects of a humanitarian response. Anti-trafficking and humanitarian models of assistance already exist. They need to be mutually adapted to better meet the specific context of trafficking among mobile populations during crises and to be better integrated so as to ensure a maximized response. This will ensure that not only human rights but anti-human trafficking strategies are equally incorporated at the very beginning of a crisis, and maintained throughout, to protect vulnerable mobile populations.  This will require a collective effort, across IOM and with our partners. But such efforts will ensure that the women and children I met in Za’atari at the UNFPA safe spaces, or those whom IOM has reached through grassroots awareness-raising campaigns in Mafraq and Irbid (Jordan) - together with the millions of refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs, migrants, and host communities caught in regional crises - remain protected from human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.