Expert Voice

Vulnerabilities to trafficking among people fleeing the Syrian conflict

31 July 2016

Speech held by Martijn Pluim, ICMPD Director of Eastern Dimension, on 25 July 2016 on the occasion of Vienna Human Trafficking Event at the UNODC.

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Excellencies, Dear colleagues, on behalf of ICMPD, I am very grateful for the invitation to join you today in marking International Anti-Trafficking Day. The theme of this morning’s meeting, vulnerabilities to trafficking, is key to understanding how to fight trafficking, and, indeed, was the subject of research we conducted at ICMPD last year. This research, entitled Targeting Vulnerabilities, examined vulnerabilities to trafficking arising from the Syrian conflict and refugee movement, and was generously funded by the US State Department.

Based on this, I would like to make three points in relation to why and how uprooted people become vulnerable to trafficking, how we can respond and who should be targeted in our responses. Points which we consider to be relevant also beyond the Syrian refugee crisis, in other protracted forced migration situations worldwide.

1. Multiple mobility and multiple statuses

Firstly, Syrians are vulnerable because of their need to move, and because they often simultaneously hold multiple legal statuses. We conducted research in the five countries most affected by forced displacement as a result of the Syrian war. While Europe mainly has experienced a crisis of failed migration policies, the humanitarian crisis is in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and of course Syria itself.

So who are all these people fleeing from violence? Are they refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs), irregular migrants or trafficked people? The answer is all of the above. And none of the above. All of the above: because the approximately twelve million children, women and men displaced by the conflict consist of: IDPs within Syria; refugees outside of Syria; migrants attempting to cross international borders without the necessary authorization; and people who have been recruited, transferred, transported, harboured or received, for the purpose of exploitation. None of the above: because no one legal status or category can accurately capture these people’s situation.

Not only are many people affected by this conflict forced to move many times both within the same country and across international borders, but they also move in and out of various different types of status, according to national and international legal frameworks. Therefore in order to understand their vulnerabilities and protection needs, and indeed how to prevent and prosecute trafficking cases, it is necessary to take into account that a refugee may also be or have been an irregular migrant, or a victim of trafficking, or both. A trafficked child may also be a separated child seeking asylum, or an IDP. So how do we avoid a situation where such girls and boys, women and men, fall through the cracks of our policy and legislative frameworks just because they do not fit neatly into one specific category?

Those of us whose professional focus is to fight trafficking must collaborate more closely with our counterparts working on internal displacement, international protection, child protection, irregular migration and migrant smuggling. We must try to understand more about these related topics in order to better coordinate our efforts.

2. Vulnerability and "low-level" trafficking

The second point relates to another key finding of the Targeting Vulnerabilities research. We found that the classic organised crime framework for understanding trafficking does not fit neatly onto the actual situation of people trafficked or vulnerable to trafficking in this forced displacement context. This is not to say that there are not very severe forms of exploitation and trafficking taking place, committed by highly organised criminal networks. This is happening as the critical situation of large-scale forced displacement is providing opportunities for such networks to profit. And it requires a strong protection and law enforcement response.

But the most common type of trafficking is at a lower level. Let us consider the situations of vulnerability of these displaced people. They had to leave their homes, jobs and schools in Syria. They desperately need to find new homes, new sources of income and education for their children. They are likely to have been subject to the trauma of violence and the loss of friends and family members, and are in urgent need of physical and mental healthcare. In some cases they do not have legal authorisation to work in the country they are in. They might be members of particular groups subject to multiple forms of discrimination or living in regions under the control of armed groups in Syria and Iraq.

Faced with too many mouths to feed and the constant threat of sexual and other types of violence, giving away a teenage daughter for marriage may seem like the only way to keep her safe. Sending boys and girls to beg and sell things on the streets may seem like the only way to secure a livelihood for them and their family.

Therefore, in very specific cases, we need to also examine the situation of extreme vulnerability of these low-level ‘small-scale’ traffickers. Prevention efforts in general must look at basic needs: employment, accommodation, healthcare and legal status. We need to understand not only the vulnerabilities of trafficked people, but also the complex motivations of those potentially involved in trafficking acts. Preventing trafficking also means preventing people from ending up in situations where they would even consider the need for committing these acts.

3. Legal channels for safe refugee movement

My final point touches upon the need for legal channels towards finding protection, ALSO as a trafficking prevention measure. The status of Syrians in neighboring countries is temporary, and Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq do not grant them Convention refugee status. Due to the lack of prospects for improvement in these conditions in the near future, people are moving on to countries outside the region. And because applying for asylum is legal but the journey often is not, people see no option but to use the services of migrant smugglers, and embark on dangerous, irregular migratory journeys. The need to travel along irregular migratory routes causes vulnerability to trafficking and other rights violations during all three stages:

  1. Before departure, in order to obtain enough money to finance the trip;
  2. During the journey; and
  3. After arrival, particularly if they have gone into debt.

There is one way to prevent this vulnerability at all three stages: legal channels for the safe and regular resettlement of refugees. Resettling refugees in much larger numbers than at present, means granting them the legal right not just to apply for asylum, but also to travel legally, preventing all of this from happening. The additional benefit of resettlement and other legal channels for refugees is that they can relieve the overstretched infrastructures of the main refugee-hosting countries.

Anti-trafficking policies must not only respond to the trafficking of refugees post facto. We have to ensure that migration policies do not have unintentional effects on people’s vulnerability to trafficking, particularly among irregular migrants, asylum applicants and refugees. In the current context of increased levels of forced displacement, this is particularly pressing, yet it is also a medium- to long-term concern at a global level if we are to succeed in effectively preventing trafficking cases among migrants and refugees.

To conclude, putting in place anti-trafficking responses that only deal with trafficking cases that have already occurred is not enough. During a period when forced migration has reached levels not seen since the Second World War, we need to think carefully and work together to protect some of the most vulnerable people from some of the most serious of human rights violations.


The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of ICMPD.

Photo: Peretz Partensky on Flickr