While the world is witnessing unprecedented numbers of displaced persons and refugees, a recent UN conference highlighted a troubling side-effect: human trafficking.
“Wars and violent conflicts have become the biggest driving force of forced human displacement,” Archbishop Bernardito Auza said in a recent address to the United Nations. The Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN noted that traffickers take advantage of the chaos of war to exploit vulnerable people, using them for sexual slavery or forced labour.
In recent years, Europe has been experiencing a refugee crisis at a level unseen since the Second World War, with millions fleeing violence and instability, largely in the Middle East, leaving hundreds of people, particularly women and children, vulnerable to trafficking. The Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, issued by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, reports that increasing numbers of victims trafficked from Iraq, Syria and Somalia are appearing in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
The Report stated that the most common type of human trafficking (79 per cent) is for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The victims are overwhelmingly women and girls. The second most common form of trafficking is aimed at forced labour (18 per cent). Worldwide, almost 20 per cent of trafficking victims are children.
“To eradicate trafficking in persons, we must confront all its economic, environmental, political, and ethical causes,” Auza said, “but it is particularly important to prevent and end the wars and conflicts that make people especially vulnerable to being trafficked.”
In his Nov. 21 address, the UN secretary-general said, “Criminals and terrorists are capitalizing on, and perpetuating, the disorder and mayhem of conflict. To fund their crimes, they prey on the vulnerable. Their brutality knows no bounds: sexual exploitation, forced labour, the removal of bodily organs and slavery are the tools of their trade.”
António Guterres named some of the groups he was referring to: “Terrorist groups such as Da’esh, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army are forcing women, boys and girls into de-humanizing servitude.” African migrants, he reported, have been sold as “goods” in Libya.
“It is our collective responsibility to stop these crimes,” he said.
In Canada, Global News reported that people under the age of 18 made up about a quarter of recorded human trafficking victims in Canada between 2009 and 2014.
Statistics Canada, meanwhile, has noted that minors not only make up a significant portion of the victims of forced labour and sex trafficking but that they also make up around seven per cent of the perpetrators.
The 18 - 24 age cohort was even more startling, with nearly 50 per cent of the victims and 41 per cent of the perpetrators falling into that range.
Nicole Barrett, a human trafficking expert at the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law, said that anecdotally 12 or 13 years old was a common age for young women to be forced into the sex trade.
She added that, much like the overall picture of human trafficking in Canada, the data related to the ages of the victims and their abusers is hobbled by the fact that only a fraction of trafficking crimes are ever uncovered or reported.
A Wikipedia article quotes The Native Women’s Association of Canada as saying that Aboriginal women and girls are significantly over-represented in the statistics on sexual exploitation and trafficking in Canada. The association identified the root causes of the crisis as the ongoing impact of colonialism on “Aboriginal societies, the legacies of the residential schools and their inter-generational effects, family violence, childhood abuse, poverty, homelessness, lack of basic survival necessities, race and gender-based discrimination, lack of education, migration, and substance addictions.”
Traffickers mask their crimes by appearing or claiming to care about these girls. The relationship may start with promises and expensive gifts, but it soon degenerates into exploitation fuelled by greed. Often girls are forced to recruit other girls, fearing violent retribution from their trafficker if they refuse. Girls are moved across provincial borders until they become completely disconnected from friends and family.
It is a crime that cries to heaven for redress.