Long-term lessons for the humanitarian sector from the war in Ukraine

Summary: In Ukraine humanitarian actors are awakening to risks of trafficking they studiously ignore elsewhere.

On 17 Mar 2022 the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) “warned of the dangers of people fleeing the armed conflict in Ukraine falling victim to human trafficking and exploitation.”

They are right, of course. On 12 March 2022 the Guardian reported that children were beginning to go missing amid the chaos of the refugee crisis from Ukraine. On 15 March, the Irish Examiner reported that a property in County Clare in the South West of Ireland, was “being offered for free to a “slim Ukrainian” woman, with an expectation of sex.” In the parlance of trafficking, this latter case is an example of an attempt to abuse the position of vulnerability of a person fleeing war for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

Trafficking in human beings is always an intrinsic part of war. Indeed, historically slavery has often been the very raison d’etre for war: Caesar enriched himself through the trafficking of thousands of prisoners during his conquest of Gaul. In the same way the European colonial powers enriched themselves with their trafficking of millions to the Americas during their invasions of Africa.

Even when war is ostensibly for reasons other than pillage, it rips away the protections that millions of ordinary people depend upon for their safety and renders them vulnerable to slavery. Hence the Rohingya refugees in the Cox’s Bazar camps in Bangladesh are vulnerable to similar trafficking risks as those Ukranians who have suddenly, rightly, exercised European civil society. Other war zones, such as those wracked by Boko Haram and Islamic State, see the routine enslavement of children as soldiers, and the systematic trafficking of girls and young women as sexual rewards for the fighters.

Hence slavery pervades contemporary war just as it did historically. So, the European Union’s offer of temporary protective measures towards Ukrainian refugees is an important step in reducing their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. Unfortunately, such protections are still unavailable to most of the migrants and refugees who risk their lives to get to Europe across the Mediterranean each year.

So, what is perhaps remarkable about the Ukrainian crisis is that the risk of trafficking has been so widely recognised already and that some systemic protections have already been put in place. Elsewhere consideration of trafficking risks in humanitarian crises is conspicuous by its absence.

In a 2021 paper, “Exploring the Relationship between Humanitarian Emergencies and Human Trafficking”, Viktoria Curbelo conducted a narrative review of databases for scholarly articles that address the issues of human trafficking and diverse forms of humanitarian crisis.

Curbelo acknowledged that a more comprehensive literature review may find additional material. Nevertheless, it is an indication of the disinterest of humanitarian policy makers and practitioners in trafficking that she managed to find only five papers fulfilling her criteria

This in turn corroborates my own observations, as both a humanitarian practitioner and an anti-slavery researcher and advocate, that the humanitarian sector is strikingly uninterested in the issue of slavery. This is surprising given that trafficking is demonstrably intrinsic to the sort of catastrophes to which the sector routinely responds.

In the very worst instances humanitarian practitioners themselves have become involved in the trafficking and exploitation of those that they are mandated to assist. In former Yugoslavia Kathryn Bolkovac, an American cop working with UN operations, blew the whistle on her own colleagues when she found they were involved in the trafficking of young women and girls for sexual exploitation. In the aftermath of an earthquake in Haiti, it was found that some Oxfam staff were involved in the exploitation of vulnerable children.

These scandals have provoked greater attention to safeguarding policies and procedures within humanitarian organisations. But in addition to such procedures there is a need for a more systematic approach from the humanitarian sector to the other trafficking risks that crises create.

This must start from a recognition that part of the reason that trafficking is practiced during humanitarian crises is that traffickers are faster in taking opportunity of the chaos of the crises than humanitarian policy makers and practitioners are in applying protections. Indeed, it must be recognized that neglecting human rights and anti-slavery protections in humanitarian response is as professionally negligent as ignoring war displaced people’s need for clean drinking water and shelter.

The awareness of the risks of exploitation and the generous extension of rights by the European Union towards Ukrainian refugees must become the template for future humanitarian responses everywhere. Without this, traffickers will continue to prey unimpeded on the victims of war.

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