Migrants’ Rights Must be Upheld to Help Combat Human Trafficking

The World Day Against Trafficking in Persons is an important moment to show solidarity with the many victims of human trafficking around the world and this year we can keep the issue in the spotlight when World leaders gather on 19 September in New York for the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants, writes IOM Director General William Lacy Swing.

As I travel the globe, I am dismayed by the exploitation suffered by our fellow human beings who are being forced to labour with little or no pay on farms, in fishing boats, in factories, on construction sites, in pit mines, hidden away in private homes, or forced into sexual exploitation against their will by armed groups. They are forced to labour under the threat of violence and through unconscionable systems of debt bondage.

Considerable progress has been made in creating legal frameworks that better protect those identified as victims of trafficking. IOM, its partners and other organizations continue to respond to the needs of victims of trafficking and to identify and protect persons vulnerable to trafficking, including during and in the aftermath of crises such as natural disasters or conflicts. In many countries, trafficked persons, quite often migrants, now have access to temporary residence, safe accommodation, medical and psychosocial support, and assisted voluntary return and reintegration opportunities. A few have even been provided with compensation.

A noteworthy development is that combating human trafficking is now integrated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, reflecting a continuing political commitment to addressing the issue. However, we must bear in mind that the numbers of people benefiting from protection remains small – especially when compared with the millions who continue to be exploited.

In truth, the line that separates a trafficked person from many exploited or abused migrants is blurred at best, and difficult to draw when people are fleeing from conflict or disaster.

A migrant – especially if he is young, male and working illegally and therefore doesn’t fit the standard stereotype of a victim of trafficking – is unlikely even to be screened for possible exploitation or trafficking. There is a protection disparity between those migrants identified as ‘trafficked’ and those who are not, and we need to bridge the gap between the large number of exploited people and the very few that we seem able to identify.

We know that some of the world’s 244 million international migrants are among the most vulnerable to trafficking and associated forms of exploitation and abuse. Many lack the legal status or recognition of their professional credentials that would allow them to be lawfully and gainfully employed. Many others are disconnected from the social networks to which they might normally turn for support in times of difficulty. Perhaps most fundamentally, many migrants (irregular migrants in particular) lack knowledge of their rights, the financial resources required to assert them, and the confidence that government officials will respect them and treat them fairly.

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 some instances, the conflict itself may lead to the emergence of specific forms of crisis-related trafficking in persons. Trafficking in persons not only flourishes during a disaster, it is a direct result of disaster, every bit as much as infrastructural damage, loss of life or food shortages which garner far more attention.

The forthcoming UN Summit Refugees and Migrants also puts the spotlight on the specific vulnerabilities to trafficking, exploitation and abuse of migrants travelling within large movements. Those affected are in desperate need of assistance and protection. This remains a major challenge for front-line responders who often lack the time, resources, and established processes necessary for victim identification, referral and assistance. As a result, many victims are not afforded the protections to which they are entitled.

There is no quick or easy way to ensure that those who most need our assistance and protection will receive it. However, the starting point is quite clear: we must make it clear that all migrants are entitled to the full realization of their rights.

In order to achieve this, we must change the current toxic narrative on migration. We must seize the opportunity to campaign for a fundamental shift in public perceptions of migrants and migration. Xenophobic language and hate speech should have no place in political discourse or media communication. Migration is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be managed.  

In tackling human trafficking and other forms of exploitation, it is imperative that we affirm that migrants’ rights are human rights and that they are entitled to the same respect and dignity to which all persons are entitled. We must all strive for this and remain united in the fight against human trafficking.