‘Nobody will answer you if you talk’: The case for research on trafficking in emergencies

In the spring of 2013, I traveled to northern Syria as part of an international organization’s emergency response team. Over the course of that year, more than a hundred thousand people would flee fighting further south only to find the border with Turkey closed, and seek safety in makeshift camps strewn among parched olive groves. My task was to rapidly assess women and girls’ protection needs and set up programs to respond to them, building on the initial steps being taken to provide water, sanitation, and safe spaces for children.

Adolescent girls showed me latrines without doors and locks that they did not feel safe using. Women were concerned about overcrowded tents, where extended families and even strangers slept in extremely close quarters. A doctor from Aleppo—who had been treating survivors of sexual violence—told me how she continued to do so here, the violence often directly resulting from the conditions in which women and girls found themselves.

Adolescent girls showed me latrines without doors and locks that they did not feel safe using. Women were concerned about overcrowded tents, where extended families and even strangers slept in extremely close quarters.

Parents spoke of older neighbours who offered to protect their young daughters by marrying them; an option they did not want to accept, but which seemed better than the dangers posed by living in such insecurity. Young Syrian men talked of dwindling prospects for marriage and family life, as they felt they had nothing left to offer a potential spouse. Everyone spoke of ‘foreigners’ – sometimes fighters – who would come looking for Syrian females to marry and bring back across the border to Turkey, or further away, to the Balkans or Central Asia. Four years later, such stories have only become more pronounced.

© UNICEF/UNI142066/GrecoA girl who has been displaced by conflict runs amid ancient ruins, where she is currently sheltering in the area of Jebel al Zawiya, Syria. Displaced women stand behind her. The ruins have become a source of refuge as they are less likely to be attacked.

Trafficking: a neglected issue in humanitarian emergencies

In a variety of emergency and displacement settings from Greece to Afghanistan – and along the precarious migration trajectories that connect them – trafficking can be specifically linked to widely recognized issues of sexual exploitation and child marriage traditionally addressed by ‘protection’ actors.[1] While a growing number of standards and tools for addressing such issues exists, practical guidance on how best to meet the needs of those who have been trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation—or to prevent it from occurring in the first place—remains limited.

Instead, human trafficking is often misunderstood or left unaddressed in emergencies. It is usually viewed as a pre-existing problem that is not a direct consequence of conflict or natural disaster, better left to law enforcement or social welfare services to address. The humanitarian sector lacks a systematic, institutional response and tends to work in silos, further complicating its ability to coordinate with and learn from these diverse actors. Numbers that speak to the scale of the issue are notoriously hard to come by in that even rudimentary monitoring and research efforts must be weighed against important ethical and safety concerns, both for those being trafficked and those seeking to shine light on the issue. With all the other competing urgent needs in emergencies, humanitarian agencies are understandably anxious about adding research on such a complex, sensitive and, often trans-national issue to their list of priorities.

human trafficking is often misunderstood or left unaddressed in emergencies. It is usually viewed as a pre-existing problem that is not a direct consequence of conflict or natural disaster, better left to law enforcement or social welfare services to address.

Crisis conditions can also make it harder to discern whether trafficking is occurring based on international definitions, and what constitutes consent versus desperation as well as whose consent is being considered. If the Syrian parents of a teen-age daughter living in an overcrowded tent on the border – a structure without doors, let alone locks, in a highly precarious location – agree to an offer of marriage as a way to protect her, can it officially be defined as trafficking? Does that change if the daughter in question is 18 years of age and agrees to travel overseas?

Aside from the damage early and/or forced marriage can inflict on a female’s physical, emotional and social well-being, how do we know if her new husband subjects her to sexual exploitation within or outside of the marriage? Where can she seek support?  In northern Syria, I asked a group of young, unmarried women where they or their friends would go for help if they experienced violence or exploitation. Many expressed frustration at the lack of services available to them. One woman told me, “Nobody will answer you if you talk.”

© UNICEF/UN028918/EsieboInternal Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, Borno state, northeast Nigeria, hosting families seeking refuge due the Boko Haram insurgencies. An estimated 2.4 million people have been internally displaced in Nigeria as a result of the Boko Haram conflict.

Protection, Peace, Security, Justice: Operating at the intersections

Addressing human trafficking deserves recognition as a life-saving activity that should be prioritized from the first stages of emergency response, according to formative research from IOM and Caritas France—the former spanning over twenty years of fieldwork and the latter focusing on conflict and post-conflict settings in the Euro-Mediterranean region. As several of the IOM researchers involved wrote, “…crises tend to exacerbate pre-existing exposure to risks, threats, abuse and exploitation, and introduce new risks and threats.” A recent statement by the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons highlights the risks not only during conflict, but also while fleeing (both in transit and host countries), and in post-conflict settings.

Combatting trafficking in conflict is increasingly seen as a political necessity in global peace and security agendas, particularly in relation to sexual exploitation. Survivors such as Nadia Murad – who last December addressed the  UN Security Council prior to its unanimous adoption of Resolution 2331 on trafficking in armed conflict – are bringing visibility and voice to the issue. In a follow on meeting this spring, UN Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated to the Council that,

“Human trafficking takes many forms. Women and girls in particular are targeted again and again and again. We see brutal sexual exploitation, including forced prostitution, forced marriage and sexual slavery.”

In the run-up to last year’s World Humanitarian Summit, a range of actors increased their focus on trafficking specific to humanitarian settings. These included the UN’s main criminal justice body, the US and UK governments, universities, and international organizations including those advocating for the broader agenda of ending ‘modern slavery’. Caritas’ work underscores the role of faith-based organizations in working closely with community and religious leaders, as important intermediaries for both prevention and connecting those affected to services.

While some trafficking is committed by highly organised criminal networks, the most common type of exploitation is at a lower level, involving fathers, mothers, husbands, extended family, acquaintances and neighbours.

Yet many global initiatives remain at the level of policy and advocacy, with only tentative actions toward a more comprehensive humanitarian response, and survivors and frontline practitioners largely absent from global discussions. Attention to trafficking following natural disasters has been limited, as well as discussions of the potential unintended dangers posed by humanitarian and refugee responses in and of themselves, and by those closest to a survivor who may be making decisions that they believe put her further out of harm’s way. As ICMP’s groundbreaking study of trafficking in relation to the Syrian war notes:

While some trafficking is committed by highly organised criminal networks, the most common type of exploitation is at a lower level, involving fathers, mothers, husbands, extended family, acquaintances and neighbours. The context of general vulnerability means that there are often factors that leave families with no viable alternative for survival other than situations that could be defined as exploitation and trafficking in national and international law.

© UNICEF/UNI127548/BrooksWorkers gather paintings made by children participating in art therapy, in a child-friendly space, in Za’atari, a tented camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. The space offers a safe place for children to participate in recreational activities and receive educational and psycho-social support.

For this reason how aid agencies deliver assistance—and through whom it is channeled—are critical in determining whether power imbalances that can lead to exploitative situations are maintained, worsened, or reduced. Negative coping mechanisms (such as child marriage) and exploitation by individuals empowered through their connection to assistance (through distributions, for example) may be caused by the response to a crisis, rather than the crisis itself. The principle of ‘doing no harm’, or at least seeking to minimize or avoid exposing people to further harm as a result of one’s actions, is essential, as is avoiding adding to a long list of protection concerns that are unrealistic for any one actor or sector to address.

Instead, we can improve upon the actions protection actors and the wider humanitarian community are already taking, so that we continuously strive to do the most good for those most in harm’s way. This is exactly what applied research in humanitarian settings seeks to do.

The time for concerted action is now

Research does not mean delaying action, but rather informing it. As efforts among humanitarian, security, human rights and justice actors to combat trafficking for sexual exploitation grow, it is timely to consider a coordinated research agenda around trafficking in emergencies.

This could build on existing recommendations for research by the UN Special Rapporteur and on the knowledge accumulated through global violence prevention efforts—such as DFID’s What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls Programme, KnoW Violence in Childhood, Together for Girls, and the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children—and apply it to an intractable and often invisible form of violence that affects unknown numbers of women and children in crisis settings. Importantly, Sustainable Development Goals 5.2, 8.7 and 16.2 and their indicators have already sparked momentum to improve global estimates and better measure progress in ending trafficking as well as forced labour and modern slavery.

© UNICEF/UN067457/SouleimanA makeshift camp north of the Raqqa in the Syrian Arab Republic, Hiba, 12, and her family just arrived in Ain Issa camp from rural Raqqa. “I wasn’t scared on the way. I kept thinking that once we get here, I will be safe,” says Hiba. “I can read and write but with difficulty,” she adds, having lost four years of education.

By coordinating the resources, knowledge and experience of different actors across the humanitarian sector, and partnering with key anti-trafficking actors outside of it, we could consolidate the evidence base on how human trafficking for sexual exploitation is exacerbated by conflict and natural disaster, what humanitarian actors are already doing to combat it, and which approaches best meet the needs of the children and women most at risk. In addition to those recently proposed at an ECOSOC Humanitarian Affairs Segment side event, potential framing questions could be:

What is known about trafficking of women and children for purposes of sexual exploitation during humanitarian emergencies? (Mapping Patterns)

  • How do the drivers of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation differ in emergencies vs non-emergency settings, and how are they the same?
  • How do humanitarian responses put women and children more at risk of this type of trafficking?
  • What mechanisms are in place to monitor this and trigger corrective action when needed?  (Do no/least harm)

What is already being done about it, and how? (Emerging good practices)

  • How can an understanding of drivers specific to humanitarian settings be used to adapt responses used to combat trafficking in non-emergency contexts?
  • What (innovative) actions are already being taken in emergency contexts, and which show signs of promise?
  • How are affected individuals and communities (including religious leaders) involved in efforts to better understand and address the issue? What ethical issues arise for those at-risk, as well as the researchers and practitioners involved?

Importantly, we must take a critical look at how our response in emergencies may inadvertently act as a push or pull factor. The lack of safe sanitation facilities, shelter, employment opportunities, economic support for hard times, or information about how and where to access services can all lead people to make choices that put them at risk, and attract those who would exploit them. While the criminal element to human trafficking makes it tremendously difficult and potentially dangerous to address, the least we can do is start with ourselves.

There is already a case for ensuring basic protection measures that prevent trafficking and sexual exploitation in emergencies. The time for taking a critical look at the efficacy of these measures, and expanding the tools and resources we have at our disposal, is now.

In addition to the outstanding efforts highlighted above, we invite those currently engaged in research, programming and policy making to prevent and/or respond to trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation in emergencies to share your findings, burning questions, and future plans in the comment field below, or contact us directly. If there is a sufficiently strong response, we may consider facilitating a round-table discussion on the issue or joining with others already doing so.

[1] Trafficking for labour exploitation is also of great concern, however here we focus specifically on trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation.

Alina Potts is a research and evaluation specialist with UNICEF Innocenti. Explore the UNICEF Innocenti research catalogue for new publications. Follow UNICEF Innocenti on Twitter and sign up for e-newsletters on any page of the UNICEF Innocenti website.

Comments are closed.


  1. This should be resolved in the issue of providing facilities that will bring improvement in the wash programme.

    1. Certainly this would be a help but it might not calm the fears of the parents of a teenage girl sleeping in a large emergency tent inhabited by numerous unfamiliar adult males.

    2. Rockson, thank you for commenting on the importance of safe, appropriate and accessible WASH facilities in mitigating this and other forms of harm. Using — or avoiding — WASH facilities that do not meet these criteria can contribute to the risk of multiple forms of GBV in emergencies. The recently revised IASC “Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action” (http://gbvguidelines.org/en/home) outline important steps for addressing this.

  2. Brilliant ! So well research and such excellent links to resources. We have long discussed the need for applied research alongside programming, and this article drives the point home once again!

    1. Thank you Maha! Yes, research within humanitarian contexts can take many forms and should not delay or distract from life-saving prevention and response measures, but rather seek to inform and improve them.

  3. I have written variously about child trafficking, research ethics, sexual exploitation, and the UN Convention (CRC, 1989) which, I believe in the context of sex trafficking needs reviewing and redrafting. I’ve conducted research and programme evalutions across SE Asia and am keen to remain involved in this field, in particular migration. My PhD took the issue a step further to explore children’s participation in decision-making at local government level, as a mechanism to protection. Again, the touch stone for this analysis is the Convention.


    Alina Potts, I hope we can have the opportunity to discuss this, and any contribution I can offer which may be of help. deborahharrison1@gmail.com (I’ m happy for my email to be public).

    1. Of course, I forgot to tell you my research paper title! “Ethical Considerations in Research with Females Trafficked for the Purposes of Sexual Exploitation”

    2. Dear Deborah, I look forward to reading your research paper and discussing further. Ethical considerations are central to this work and a commitment to sharing case studies based on what has worked well — and what hasn’t — is essential to advancing our learning in this regard. I will reach out by email and also encourage you to read and share feedback on Innocenti’s “What we know about ethical research involving children in humanitarian settings: An overview of principles, the literature and case studies”: https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/849/