A person cannot be a possession. A child should never be a commodity. Human trafficking is a serious crime and a gross violation of human rights and dignity. It can take place in ordinary times and in times of crisis. Human trafficking is the world’s third most profitable criminal activity, which by its clandestine and secretive nature makes it difficult to collect accurate data to assess the full scale. Poverty, the desire for greater economic opportunity and humanitarian emergencies can make migrants vulnerable to trafficking. Many victims of human trafficking are deceived about the nature or conditions of work in the destination country.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is committed to supporting efforts to strengthen global coordination on trafficking, utilizing its global footprint and expertise. In the decade since the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, came into force, a high number of countries that have ratified the Protocol have introduced anti-human trafficking legislations. Also charged with combating and eradicating human trafficking is the UN Global Plan of Action against Trafficking in Persons, which is scheduled for a second appraisal in 2017.

Despite these collective efforts, we have no reason to believe that human trafficking is any less prevalent today than it was before the Protocol came into effect.

Addressing human trafficking will only be possible with on-going and enhanced cooperation with all partners working on this issue to strengthen strategies that support prevention of the crime, protection and direct, comprehensive assistance to victims, and prosecution of offenders.

The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development last September renewed political commitment for protection against trafficking in persons. Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for an end to all forms of forced labour, human trafficking and child labour by 2025. Two additional targets specifically address human trafficking: 5.2 ‘Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation’; and 16.2 ‘End abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children’.

Progress in the other Goals is essential to a strengthened, comprehensive approach to combatting trafficking, for example, in the areas of poverty eradication (Goal 1), gender equality and women’s empowerment (Goal 5), promoting full and productive employment and decent work (Goal 8), reducing inequality within and among countries (Goal 10), and providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions (Goal 16).

Target 10.7, which seeks to facilitate safe, orderly, regular and responsible migration, is also critical. It recognizes that realizing the benefits and full potential of migration, while addressing risks such as human trafficking, requires well-managed and well-governed approaches to migration and human mobility. Giving effect to these targets and measuring progress will require enhanced efforts in a range of areas, including data collection. Currently, the Inter-agency and Expert Group on the SDGs is devising a set of indicators to monitor all 169 targets of the 2030 Agenda, including on trafficking and migration-related targets.

IOM started working in the area of counter-trafficking in the mid-nineties. At that time little was known, the actors were few, funding was slight, and the initiatives were modest. During the past 30 years IOM, with numerous partners, has implemented hundreds of projects, trained tens of thousands of public and private representatives, and protected and assisted over 85,000 victims of trafficking. Human trafficking is not any less widespread today than it was when we began our work nearly two decades ago. In order to achieve our anti-trafficking goals, we see at least three areas where a more concerted effort is required.

Firstly, we need to improve the level of protection available to victims of trafficking. Considerable progress has been made in creating legal frameworks that better protect those identified as victims of trafficking. However, the number of people benefiting from this protection remains small in light of the magnitude of the problem, as it is estimated that there are tens of millions of victims of trafficking worldwide. The line that separates a smuggled migrant from a trafficked person, or from many exploited or abused migrants, is blurred at best.

 A migrant – especially if he is young, male and working illegally and therefore does not fit the stereotype of a victim – is unlikely to be screened for possible trafficking and/or exploitation. While there may be no quick or easy solution to strengthen our ability to identify trafficked persons, a greater commitment to protecting the human rights of all migrants may well be a precondition we must insist on.

Trafficking is an inherently gendered phenomenon. Overwhelmingly, it is women and girls who are trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation. But men and boys are also trafficked, particularly for the purposes of labour exploitation, but also for sexual exploitation. One need only consider the experiences of men and boys trafficked into fishing vessels, where they remain at sea for months or even years on end with no pay, no medical attention, and forced to work for up to 20 hours a day, and are often subject to sexual abuse, to recognize that they too desperately need assistance and protection. It is critical to ensure that responses are sensitive to the different needs and vulnerabilities of women and men, girls and boys, and that all people are given adequate support, including access to justice and legal redress in transit and destination countries, regardless of gender, age or other characteristics.

Secondly, we must address the trafficking of individuals affected by crisis. In late 2014, IOM undertook a study exploring the link between exploitation, trafficking and crisis, including natural disasters, armed conflict and protracted crisis globally in the last 11 years.  

One finding from the study was that displacement and mobility create additional risk factors and vulnerabilities that contribute to broader abuse and exploitation. As the vulnerabilities of migrants compound, traditional support structures break down, individual and family resources are used up to address more immediate needs, and infrastructure and social service support systems are weakened, stranded vulnerable migrants become even lower cost and lower risk targets.

Furthermore, IDP and refugee camps, as well as, informal settlements are target-rich environments. Traffickers and other criminal networks looking for a source of victims, for a cheap or free workforce, for sexual services and for other exploitative services, take advantage of both displaced persons vulnerabilities and of the general weakening of law and order. For these reasons, the study concludes that in crisis, existing forms of trafficking are exacerbated and vulnerabilities increased, while new, crisis-induced trafficking types arise.

The research also points out that in spite of this, trafficking and exploitation are still overlooked in humanitarian response efforts. It is critical therefore that efforts are quickly made to ensure that anti-trafficking programming cuts across all aspects of a humanitarian response and that they are systematically included in the every response from the outset, even when evidence is unavailable.

Thirdly, we need to strengthen the evaluation of anti-trafficking responses. Unfortunately, the counter-trafficking sector has not systematically invested in measuring, evaluating and learning from the multiple and evolving counter-trafficking efforts to date.

The Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT) recently commissioned a discussion paper to review the state of evaluation in the field and to develop a road map for guiding and growing evaluation of counter-trafficking efforts. One of the findings is that the sector suffers from a lack of systematic information collected from intervention participants, including those who have experienced trafficking, which is critical to assessing the relevance and quality of supports available and to identify gaps in services.

A principal challenge faced by all concerned actors in that regard is the lack of reliable, high-quality data. Through its centralized case management system, IOM has case data on nearly 50,000 victims of human trafficking, with approximately 5,000 cases now being added every year. As a result, IOM has the largest database of its kind in the world, which has the potential to be an enormous asset in the fight against trafficking.

IOM is now developing a human trafficking data portal, which will anonymize and host IOM’s and partners’ human trafficking data and make it more accessible to policy-makers, practitioners, academics, researchers, and the public more generally. In becoming the first centralized, multi-stakeholder, open access source of data in this field, the portal will allow these stakeholders to rapidly strengthen the evidence base for counter-trafficking response. The US-based NGO, Polaris, has a similarly large database and is a key partner for the pilot phase of this initiative.

With the first year of the Sustainable Development Goals completed and Governments currently working them into national policy, the opportunity must not be lost to reduce and eventually eradicate human trafficking. If not now, when?

Ashraf El Nour is the Permanent Observer of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to the United Nations