Trafficking in Human Beings in Conflict or Post-Conflict Situations. A Reflection on Strategies

In conflict areas, trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual slavery, forced labour, recruitment of children into armed groups and the abduction of women and girls for forced marriages are dramatically widespread.

Trafficking in Human Beings in Conflict or Post-Conflict Situations. A Reflection on Strategies
Image of woman hands tied with a coarse rope. ©Alta Oosthuizen/Shuttertock

Conflict related trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual slavery and exploitation is included by the United Nations in the definition of Conflict Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) together with rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, forced abortion, forced prostitution, forced marriage or any other form of sexual violence. This notion refers to crimes perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys, whether they occur in a conflict or post-conflict situation, directly or indirectly linked to the conflict  itself. 

The perpetrators belong to state or non-state armed groups, including those regarded as terrorist groups by the United Nations. The victims, in most cases, are actual or presumed members of a political, ethnic or religious minority who are persecuted in a climate of impunity, usually associated with the collapse of the State.

Such abuses, which is directed against the civilian population, completely upsets the community to which the victims belong, irreparably compromising their social aggregation, since this often results in their stigmatization, rejection by the community itself, rather than solidarity. And even where the community they belong to does not reject them, the victims of Conflict Related Sexual Violence feel affected by a stigma that leads them to no longer perceive themselves as worthy members of the community they belong to, generating a sense of alienation that is not without serious consequences. 

A weapon of war, therefore, able to destroy the enemy and always used, since the dawn of time. And it must be observed that, despite the formalization, as a response to the atrocities of the crimes of the World War II, of the rules on the fundamental rights of the human person and the relative gradual humanization of the rules on the limits to war violence, which should have constituted a bulwark against such aberrant crimes, nothing has changed in the conflicts that took place after this war. 

In Liberia, Uganda, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, former Yugoslavia, parties to an armed conflict have committed such crimes in the context of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Groups and militaries have used these crimes as a war tactic to displace and disrupt communities.

It should also be highlighted that Conflict Related Sexual Violence continues to be used as a war tactic, a means of torture and a terrorist tactic in various countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria. This has led to very serious violations of human rights.

In Afghanistan, women and girls are sold or forced into marriage and reduced and kept in slavery by Taliban forces. In Myanmar, the acts of sexual slavery against the Rohingya, vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation, are to be highlighted. In Libya and Yemen, armed groups and transnational traffickers continue to perpetrate rape and sexual slavery with impunity amid a deepening humanitarian crisis. 

In the Central African Republic, women and girls have been subjected to violence and, in some cases, kidnapped and detained by armed groups. Such acts of violence and exploitation have also occurred in the context of kidnappings and trafficking in persons, including by terrorist groups.

In Iraq, systematic violence against women and forced pregnancies have been used as instruments to implement plans for ethnic cleansing. Da’esh has used the bodies of Yazidi women, kidnapped, as sex slaves to reward the fighters, trafficked on the global sex market, as war booty to be used also as a source of financing. 

Crimes committed against the Yazidi, Turkmen, Christian and Shabak communities were defined by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic as “with deliberate genocidal intent”. Da’esh has perpetrated the enslavement, deportation and forced transfer of populations, imprisonment, torture, kidnapping of women and children, exploitation, abuse, rape, sexual violence. Boko Haram in Nigeria has similarly sold hundreds of kidnapped girls in villages and schools. In South Sudan, women and girls were subjected to mass abductions, sexual slavery, forced marriages and pregnancies. 

As for the conflict in Ukraine, since 17 May 2022 a team of 42 investigators, forensic experts and support staff has been conducting the investigation of crimes falling under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and provides support to the Ukrainian national authorities. 

Trafficking and serious exploitation are therefore systematically linked to all recent conflicts. These constitute a multiplier of all those factors of vulnerability relating in particular to women and girls victims of various forms of violence. Vulnerability can depend on multiple factors that interact with gender, such as nationality, ethnic or geographical origin, social status. During a conflict, these factors of vulnerability are accentuated and further contextual factors contribute to creating a situation of risk. The conflict involves a subversion of the institutions due to the total or substantial collapse, or the unavailability of the judicial system, favoring impunity.

Many people are led by fear of attacks and bombings to choose to flee, facing the journey without any information and in otherwise unacceptable conditions of insecurity. At risk of trafficking are both internally displaced persons who leave their villages or towns to move to other areas of the same country, and refugees, who lose their protection systems consisting of family and social ties.

It is precisely the conflicts and resulting humanitarian crises that expose minors to trafficking and other forms of exploitation. In such contexts, girls are victims of violence and sexual exploitation. During humanitarian crises, girls and boys who have lost their families are frequently forced to offer sexual services in order to survive. And again, many young women are induced to marry in order to obtain shelter, passage or protection. 

These evidences require an in-depth reflection on the requirements necessary to qualify such crimes as crimes against humanity under  jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. 

But that’s not enough. Trafficking, included in the definition of Conflict Related Sexual Violence, should be considered as such even when it is perpetrated not by groups involved in the conflict, but by criminal groups that take advantage of the collapse of institutions and the consequent widespread impunity, and also of the vulnerabilities of people seeking to flee conflict zones. Organized crime profits from conflict or post-conflict situations and turns the exploitation of vulnerabilities created or exacerbated by them into a business. Criminal organizations turn their sights towards the poorest social groups, to exploit people in the sex industry, forced prostitution, slavery and servitude. These criminal groups have an increasingly transnational connotation.

Starting then from this second point of view, the reflection is aimed at the instruments that constitute the regulatory response at a supranational level and in Italian criminal system to these aberrant crimes, to verify whether this is adequate for the purposes of allow for effective law enforcement and protection of the victims.

Of fundamental importance are the correlations between trafficking in persons and international protection, in the sense of identification, in the migratory history of persons who have experienced trafficking or are at risk of experiencing it, of the requirements for applying international protection. The central point is the recognition of the experience of trafficking, in its multiple manifestations, as a reason for persecution, namely the possibility of applying the 1951 Geneva Convention for according the Status of Refugees to trafficked persons.

These topics are analyzed in this essay, which was created by the Author in the context of research activities for the Centre on Economic, Social and Cooperation Dynamics (CESC) and for the UNESCO Chair Human Rights, International Cooperation and Sustainable Development, University of Bergamo.

(The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. The ideas and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization).

Paola Scevi

Professor of Criminal Law and Director of the Master in Migration Law, University of Bergamo.

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