Human Trafficking Reaches ‘Horrific’ New Heights, Declares U.N. Report

January 14, 2019

Human trafficking has taken on “horrific” dimensions, according to the 2018 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons released this month by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The report, which looked at data from 142 countries between 2014 and 2016, points to two particularly disturbing trends, says Angela Me, chief of the research and trend team at UNODC. The first is the increasing number of girls forced into trafficking, most frequently for sexual exploitation. The other is the growing prevalence of trafficking as a tool of war.

Nearly 25,000 cases of human trafficking were reported to UNODC in 2016, up from approximately 20,000 in 2014 and 17,000 in 2013. Me cautions that the increases reported by UNODC may reflect more trafficking, or, alternatively, greater reporting by authorities, or perhaps a combination of both.

There are a number of other notable findings from the report.

Exploitation comes in many forms

Sexual exploitation remains the most common form of human trafficking, at 59 percent of all victims, says Me. But there are many other types of exploitation. Forced labor is the second most prevalent form of trafficking, at 34 percent overall and 82 percent for men, with the greatest prevalence in southern, east and west Africa, and the countries of the Middle East.

Types of forced labor run the gamut from agricultural to domestic work — as well as mining, including for gold, diamonds and minerals, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

And there are still other reasons why traffickers prey on people, says Me. One is organ removal for medical transplantation, with the report citing estimates of between 5 and 10 percent of all kidney and liver donations worldwide derived from trafficking.

Conflict creates new opportunities for traffickers

Violent conflict is happening in more countries today than in the last 30 years, according to the report. The crises have caused millions of refugees and displaced persons to flee their homes. The journey makes them vulnerable to traffickers offering jobs, help or travel arrangements that turn out to be fraudulent, leading instead to forced labor, sexual exploitation or other types of trafficking.

At greatest risk are children traveling alone, often after having been separated from families and communities in the course of the conflict.

Boys are most often recruited for military units as soldiers, bodyguards or laborers helping armed groups move from camp to camp. UNICEF has also documented the use of children as young as 8 in suicide attacks.

Girls are increasingly targeted

A growing number of girls are victimized, generally for sexual exploitation or housework. According to the report, in 2017, 23 percent of trafficking victims were girls below the age of 18, compared to 21 percent in 2014 and 10 percent in 2004.

Forced marriage — girls and women seized as non-consensual sex partners and for domestic work — is prevalent in areas of armed conflict. In Sierra Leone, for example, armed groups sought out and coerced females between the ages of 13 and 22 to be their wives, according to the country’s 2016 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

Females from marginalized or minority groups are also often targeted for forced sex and sexual enslavement. ISIL, for instance, sold Yazidi females as commodities for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude or what the report describes as “distribution” to military camps, presumably for forced sex and domestic chores.

Trafficking happens everywhere

The majority of victims are trafficked within their own countries or regions. But among reported cases, 1 in 10 victims are transported to another part of the world. This “destination” trafficking, transporting people from one part of the world to another, usually from less economically developed areas to wealthier countries.

The complex arrangements necessary for long-distance trafficking reflect the involvement of larger organizations, says Me. Many routes originate in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, going from there to the Middle East, or Western and Southern Europe.

The world is getting better at combating human trafficking

Some progress is being made in combating trafficking, says Me. Almost every country in the world has passed legislation to criminalize human trafficking, though more attention needs to be paid to protecting the victims caught up in the trafficking.

Data collection — which will aid catching traffickers and in planning anti-trafficking initiatives — is also improving. UNODC recently tested a new methodology for estimating the numbers of trafficking victims, Multiple Systems Estimation (MSE), in four European countries.

In the Netherlands, MSE found that there are four to five times as many victims as those detected, many of whom are trafficked underage Dutch girls — a finding that led, in turn, to policy discussions about launching awareness programs in Dutch schools.

The awarding of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict has also brought greater visibility and attention to the issue. But as the data shows, much more work remains.


Diane Cole writes for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The Jewish Week, and is book columnist for The Psychotherapy Networker. She is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges. Her website is dianejcole.com.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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