Logo UNICEF Innocenti
Office of Research-Innocenti
menu icon

Trafficking in humanitarian emergencies: A largely unattended threat to children

Call for comment and exchange on expanding research efforts
23 Aug 2017
Refugee family arriving in Mosul, Iraq

(23 August 2017) A new UNICEF Innocenti blog sheds light on important evidence and knowledge gaps related to human trafficking in humanitarian settings. One of the most neglected issues in emergencies, trafficking is usually viewed as a pre-existing problem and not as a direct consequence of conflict or natural disaster. Its peculiar nature is often misunderstood, remaining largely unaddressed in emergencies. However, humanitarian crises tend to exacerbate pre-existing exposure to abuse and exploitation, introducing new risks and threats especially for women and girls.

Human trafficking in humanitarian settings can take many forms including forced prostitution, forced marriage and sexual slavery. It can often involve fathers, mothers, husbands, extended family, acquaintances and neighbors. In a context of general vulnerability – such as prolonged sheltering in a crowded tent camp – there are often factors that leave families with no viable alternative for survival other than situations that could be defined as exploitation and trafficking in national and international law.

As Alina Potts, the author of the post, says: “how aid agencies deliver assistance —and through whom it is channeled— are critical in determining whether power imbalances that can lead to exploitative situations are maintained, worsened, or reduced…. The principle of ‘doing no harm’, or at least seeking to minimize or avoid exposing people to further harm as a result of one’s actions, is essential, as is avoiding adding to a long list of protection concerns that are unrealistic for any one actor or sector to address.”

Consolidating the evidence base on how human trafficking for sexual exploitation is exacerbated by conflict and natural disaster is an essential first step in addressing the problems. It will also be necessary to better catalogue what humanitarian actors are already doing to combat trafficking during emergencies. There is an urgent need to better understand which approaches best meet the needs of the children and women most at risk, and to take a critical look at how responses in emergencies may inadvertently act as a push or pull factor, as well as for expanding the tools and resources we have at our disposal.

In addition to those recently proposed at the ECOSOC Humanitarian Affairs Segment side event  in Geneva Preventing Human Trafficking among Crisis-Affected Populations in Emergency Settings, the author raises the following potential framing questions and invites those currently engaged in research, programming and policy making to prevent and/or respond to trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation in emergencies to share findings, burning questions, and future plans to contribute to a broad discussion on the subject:

What is known about trafficking of women and children for purposes of sexual exploitation during humanitarian emergencies? (Mapping Patterns)

  • How do the drivers of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation differ in emergencies vs non-emergency settings, and how are they the same?
  • How do humanitarian responses put women and children more at risk of this type of trafficking?
  • What mechanisms are in place to monitor this and trigger corrective action when needed?  (Do no/least harm)

What is already being done about it, and how? (Emerging good practices)

  • How can an understanding of drivers specific to humanitarian settings be used to adapt responses used to combat trafficking in non-emergency contexts?
  • What (innovative) actions are already being taken in emergency contexts, and which show signs of promise?
  • How are affected individuals and communities (including religious leaders) involved in efforts to better understand and address the issue? What ethical issues arise for those at-risk, as well as the researchers and practitioners involved?
For those interested to share findings, burning questions, and future plans read the blog