Linking conflict, violence and exploitation
In 2016, more countries were experiencing some form of violent conflict than at any other time in the previous 30 years.1 People living in conflict-affected areas may experience abuse, violence and exploitation, including trafficking in persons. The risk of trafficking in persons is also connected with the high numbers of refugees. A need to flee war and persecution may be taken advantage of for exploitation by traffickers.
Trafficking in persons in the context of armed conflict has received increased attention by the international community. In November 2017, the United Nations Security Council addressed the topic in Resolution 2388 and reiterated its deep concern that trafficking in persons in areas affected by armed conflict continues to occur. It also underscored that certain offences associated with trafficking in persons in the context of armed conflict may constitute war crimes.2 Moreover, the Security Council reiterated its condemnation of all acts of trafficking undertaken by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, the Lord´s Resistance Army and other terrorist or armed groups for the purpose of sexual slavery, sexual exploitation and forced labour.
In Resolution 2331 of December 2016, the Security Council requested the Secretary-General to take steps to improve the collection of data, monitoring and analysis of trafficking in persons in the context of armed conflict.4 In response, the present study examines how trafficking in persons occurs in the context of armed conflict through an analysis based on an extensive literature review, a review of case narratives from international tribunals and interviews with personnel from United Nations peacekeeping operations.5 Trafficking in persons is another dimension of the violence, brutality and abuse that occur in the context of armed conflict. While trafficking takes many forms, it always involves the purpose of exploitation. Victims are trafficked for exploitation in forced labour in different sectors, from agriculture to mines. They are also trafficked to serve as domestic servants, for sexual exploitation or for armed combat. Children are often recruited into armed groups for forced labour in a range of military-related roles. As one expert described it: “when there are armed groups you may find all kinds of exploitation”.
Factors contributing to trafficking in persons in armed conflict
The generalized violence that characterizes conflict areas shapes the conditions for a series of actors, including armed groups, to force or deceive civilians into exploitative situations.
A combination of different elements characterizing armed conflicts increases the risks of trafficking. Armed conflicts amplify the social and economic vulnerabilities of the people affected. In addition, the erosion of the rule of law, which safeguards and protects individuals in peacetime, is one common consequence of armed conflict. The breakdown of state institutions and resulting impunity contribute to generating an environment where trafficking in persons can thrive.
Forced displacement is another factor that contributes to an individual’s vulnerability to trafficking. In 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that over 68 million people were forcibly displaced because of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations.
Displaced persons may have limited access to education, financial resources or opportunities for income generation. This provides a fertile environment for traffickers to promise safe migration routes, employment and education or skills training, and deceive them into exploitative situations. Children who are displaced or separated from their families without support networks are particularly vulnerable to becoming targets for traffickers.8 Discrimination and/or marginalization of minorities compel many to leave family and friends behind in search of safety and protection. The breakdown of social ties and diminishing levels of regular economic activity in conflict settings may force people to search for alternative livelihoods.
Trafficking into and out of armed conflicts
In conflict areas, trafficking in persons for sexual slavery, recruitment of children into armed groups, forced labour and abduction of women and girls for forced marriages are the most commonly reported forms of trafficking.
Armed groups use trafficking as part of their strategy to increase their military power and economic resources, but also to project a violent image of themselves and instil fear in local populations. Armed groups also use sexual violence and sexual slavery as part of their operations. In some conflicts, for example, the prospect of receiving ‘sex slaves’ as a reward for joining the group is part of the armed groups’ strategies to recruit new fighters.
Trafficking in persons related to armed conflict also occurs outside specific conflict areas. This is typically linked to higher levels of vulnerability experienced by people living on the margins of conflict, such as internally displaced persons, refugees and others living in nearby areas affected by armed conflict. In these situations, victims are primarily trafficked for sexual exploitation, forced labour, forced marriages or for multiple forms of exploitation. People using migrant smugglers to flee conflicts may end up as victims of trafficking, coerced into forced labour or sexual exploitation to pay off the smuggler fees.
Defining trafficking and other crimes in the conflict context
Trafficking in persons is a complex phenomenon occurring in a range of different settings. The internationally agreed definition from the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, defines the crime in terms of three constituent elements, namely the act, the means and the purpose.
It is sometimes challenging to distinguish between different crimes; a challenge that is even more acute in conflict situations. A range of crimes may include elements of persons being transported, recruited or transferred with some form of coercive, deceptive or abusive means for the purpose of being exploited. For instance, conflict-related sexual violence13 may encompass aspects of trafficking in persons. Violent and exploitative crimes such as sexual slavery in conflict areas typically stem from a trafficking process, as they involve an act (often recruitment and/or transportation) and a means (often coercion) as well as a purpose (exploitation). The trafficking occurs when armed groups abduct and/or coerce persons into forced marriages, which has been observed in many armed conflicts worldwide and continues to take place on a significant scale.
The recruitment of children, and sometimes also the coerced or deceptive recruitement of adults, into armed groups is another example of trafficking in persons. These children and adults are used as combatants or subdued into sexual slavery or used in various supportive roles. In many cases, ‘child soldiers’ are recruited or abducted and subsequently exploited, which qualifies this conduct as trafficking in persons. The recruitment of children by armed groups is included among the six grave violations against children15 and considered a war crime.16 Trafficking in persons is reported by UN agencies and other international organizations in different ways.
UNODC has made efforts to establish the facts of situations discussed in this study to assess whether the conduct in question was, in fact, trafficking in persons. However, it was not always possible to establish with certainty as the available information of the different cases was often incomplete. Some of the crimes discussed in this study may clearly be defined as trafficking in persons, while others exhibit elements of trafficking in persons in the way they were carried out. For example, cases of conflict involving sexual violence or war crimes have been documented by many organizations. While some of these include elements of exploitation they may not necessarily qualify as trafficking in persons.
Structure of this booklet
This booklet presents the status of knowledge on trafficking in persons in the context of armed conflict. It is based on an extensive review of literature and reports from regional and international organizations combined with primary information collected from areas where armed conflicts have been discussed by the United Nations Security Council. It draws on cases investigated by the international criminal tribunals and interviews with United Nations peacekeeping personnel based in field missions located within or in the proximity of conflict zones. A detailed methodology, interview questions and list of respondents is annexed to this booklet.
The first section presents an overview of the main forms of trafficking that have been identified within and in the surroundings of conflict areas. The subsequent section describes commonly identified victim profiles and outlines the main factors impacting their vulnerability to trafficking. The third section identifies main perpetrators and analyses the ways in which trafficking in persons is used as part of their modus operandi. The final section presents examples of trafficking in persons in conflict scenarios on the agenda of the Security Council (where enough information was available).