Trafficking Overview:


Trafficking in persons is defined in the Palermo Protocol as the 


recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.


Exploitation most commonly takes the form of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation. With 178 state parties,  the Palermo Protocol obligates parties to take measures to prevent trafficking, punish traffickers, and protect victims of trafficking.


According to the International Labor Organization, as many as 40.3 million people are in a trafficking situation globally. A disproportionate amount of victims are women and girls, especially amongst those who are trafficked for commercial sex. Traffickers often target those in difficult circumstances, such as undocumented migrants, people in ecocomic need, and unaccompanied children.


In times of armed conflict, the vulnerabilities that give rise to trafficking are exacerbated, especially for those fleeing conflict zones. Social and economic vulnerabilities of affected persons are amplified in times of armed conflict. Forced displacement and family separations arising from armed conflict also increase an individual’s vulnerabilities, especially when those displaced are face language barriers and are left without documentation or legal status in the places they are attempting to flee.  Experts at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) state that criminals profit from the outbreak of chaos and war, and the increased vulnerabilities of refugees and internally displaced persons only heightens their risk of being exploited by criminal networks. People fleeing without grants of legal status are often targeted by migrant smuggling schemes, which can lead to trafficking. Additionally, the breakdown of family units while fleeing and leaving support networks behind can increase a refugees’ susceptibility. Fleeing areas of armed conflict also leave many refugees without an income, which can lead to their recruitment into sex and labor trafficking schemes.


Trafficking during times of armed conflict is not a new phenomenon, but it has captured international attention in the last few years. Armed conflict in Syria and terrorist activity in Iraq and Nigeria brought global attention to the trafficking of refugees and internally displaced persons in conflict zones. Taking these situations into account, in 2017 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2388, which calls upon UN member states to improve upon their domestic anti-trafficking commitments, including victim identification training, and ensure that victims of trafficking are provided with appropriate care and social services. This resolution also highlights the need for receiving states to implement early warning and screening processes for incoming refugees to proactively identify potential trafficking victims or individuals vulnerable to trafficking.  


Situation in Ukraine:


The current armed conflict in Ukraine has brought the issue of trafficking to the forefront. Since Russian hostilities began in February, nearly 5 million refugees have fled Ukraine to neighboring European countries. A majority of these refugees are women and children, who are the primary targets of traffickers.  UNDOC, UNHCR, UNICEF, and several major news organizations have recently expressed concern over the high risk of exploitation that many Ukrainian refugees and internally displaced citizens face. At checkpoints in Poland, the lack of a system for registering volunteers leaves the door open to traffickers. Traffickers posing as volunteers, or a lack of trafficking training provided to volunteers, leaves exhausted refugees arriving at the Polish border vulnerable to trafficking organizations. Additionally, reports of unaccompanied children arriving at border crossings raises alarm given the susceptibility of children to be trafficked. Language barriers of refugees arriving in neighboring countries, the economic vulnerabilities of those fleeing conflict zones, and uncertainty of safe passageways and legal refugee status also heighten the risk of trafficking of Ukrainian refugees.  


Even once Ukrainian refugees are resettled in neighboring cities and countries, they are still vulnerable to trafficking. While these individuals are displaced, the need for food, housing, and child care places burdens on those who lack income-opportunities or humanitarian aid. The need to provide for these basic necessities open the door for exploitation by trafficking organizations, which were already in operation in the area before conflict broke-out. The vulnerabilities of Ukrainian refugees fleeing conflict zones necessitates a response by refugee-receiving countries.


What Has, and Needs, to be Done to Address the Issue:


In response to the current refugee crisis, on March 3, 2022 the European Union invoked the Temporary Protection Directive.  This directive was created in the 1990s to respond to the refugee crisis resulting from the Balkan wars and, upon its invocation, provides legal safeguards to protected individuals.  The current directive applies to “Ukrainian nationals who resided in Ukraine and their family members prior to 24 Feb. 2022, third-country nationals and stateless persons who resided in Ukraine on or before 24 Feb. 2022, or individuals with residence permits in Ukraine” and gives refugees a temporary residence permit for at least one year.


If implemented effectively, the Temporary Protection Directive addresses a major vulnerability that refugees from armed conflict areas face – undocumented status and the risk of migrant smuggling.  While this is a step in the right direction towards addressing the vulnerabilities these refugees face, all refugee-receiving countries must also follow through with their obligations under the Palermo Protocol and Security Council Resolution 2388 to take preventative measures to stop trafficking before it occurs and to provide services to trafficking victims.


UN OHCHR has called for states to “urgently provide expanded access to international protection and safe migration routes” to individuals displaced by the war.  They have also called for states to provide additional resources to address the influx of unaccompanied child refugees, including tracing missing children and providing access to safe accommodation.  States receiving refugees should also focus their prevention efforts on training and screening humanitarian volunteers at both border checkpoints and resettlement assistance programs.  This includes training volunteers to recognize the signs of trafficking and training them to inform incoming refugees about the signs of trafficking.  States should also plan for longer-term social and economic assistance for these refugees to help mitigate on-going vulnerabilities that traffickers aim to exploit.

Author Biography: Caroline Dumoulin is a senior moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. She earned her bachelor’s in international affairs and history from Florida State University and is interested in international human rights law.