Refugees and migrants are among the most vulnerable people on the planet. They are scapegoated by populist politicians, denied international protection, risk death and injury as they cross borders, and face exploitation and abuse wherever they go. Whatever your thoughts on the European migrant and refugee crisis, preventing human rights abuses and loss of life should be a priority.
In 2017, the charity Oxfam reported that migrants and refugees in Libya faced a “living hell”, including the daily threat of kidnapping, torture, rape, and slavery. At least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees are thought to have gone missing after reaching Europe, many of them believed to have fallen victim to human trafficking and sexual exploitation. How can we prevent this from happening?
People smuggling and human trafficking will be one of the many security issues discussed on Debating Security Plus (DS+). Our sister think-tank, Friends of Europe, has launched a global online brainstorm designed to find solutions to today’s security challenges. From 19 June, 09:00 CEST to 20 June 20:00 CEST, the international security community will debate challenges and policy solutions. The discussions will be moderated by leading international think-tanks and organisations that will steer discussions towards concrete recommendations.
What do our readers think? Well, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about the difference between “people smuggling” and “human trafficking”. Many of the comments we’ve had use the terms interchangeably, implying that all of the migrants and refugees coming into Europe have been trafficked. Obviously, this is not true. Yet, is the confusion really surprising when the picture on the ground is so complex?
For example, we had a comment sent in from Saul, who believes that if someone is an unaccompanied child and they’re smuggled into Europe, then this should be considered human trafficking. Is he right? And, if not, what’s the difference between people smuggling and human trafficking?
To get a response, we spoke to Vincent Cochetel, Special Envoy of the UNHCR for the Central Mediterranean. What would he say?
For us, trafficking implies a notion of coercion or violence or exploitation of a vulnerable individual. So there is a difference between smuggling and trafficking. But in a place like Libya, you always have a degree of coercion being used, so the difference between the two is blurred in the context of Libya.
To get another perspective, we put the same question to Mark Lagon, former US Ambassador-at-Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons, and currently Centennial Fellow and Distinguished Senior Scholar at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, and Chief Policy Officer of the Friends of the Global Fights Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. What would he say?
Great question, and it’s one of the reasons why some who seek to fight human trafficking use the word ‘slavery’ to clarify that the key thing is the exploitation. The key thing is not necessarily movement, because there are some who never cross borders, like a Dalit in a brick kiln in India or a child in prostitution that never crosses the border, who are trafficking victims.
Trafficking has to do with the exploitation and the use of force, fraud and coercion. These are expressions that apply in both UN treaties and domestic law. People smuggling is moving people across borders illicitly, but it is in fact the exploitation that matters. If someone is an undocumented migrant, they can be a human trafficking victim if they are subject to force, fraud or coercion.
Next up, we had a comment sent in from Marianne, who argues that today there is no legal way for refugees to enter Europe, forcing many to instead take illegal routes into the EU. This leaves them much more vulnerable to abuse from human traffickers. Would creating safe and regular paths to asylum help crack down on this kind of exploitation?
Here’s Vincent Cochetel‘s response:
Yes, you should have some legal pathways for migration or some possibility of resettlement for refugees, so they don’t use the service of traffickers or smugglers to go to Europe. We definitely need that. But at the same time, we definitely need to fight trafficking. It’s not you do one after the other; you do the two at the same time.
And what would Mark Lagon say?
I think it is always better for there to be clear and safe pathways for documented migration. There will be refugees; there will be undocumented migrants. We just need to be attentive to when people are actually refugees from political turmoil and when people have been subject to force, fraud and coercion, and it is not their fault that they have been involved in undocumented migration and vulnerability to trafficking.
Finally, we had a comment from Stevo, who told us that his country, Australia, put in place a policy where the coast guards simply turn back smugglers’ boats. He argues that because of this policy the boats stopped coming. Obviously, the Italian government is now following a similar policy. Should other European countries adopt the same approach? Would it help cut down on the number of people making the crossing (and, therefore, the number of people vulnerable to trafficking)?
What Australia does is in contravention with international refugee law. I think European states should abide by these standards. But it’s not just a response for Europe, it’s a response also for the countries in North Africa. So you need proper sharing responsibility arrangements; you don’t change geography. You cannot stop migration, you have to manage it.
How would Mark Lagon respond to the same comment? Would turning back the boats at the border be a solution?
Respectfully, I don’t think that is the sole solution or the best solution. When I was the US ambassador to combat trafficking of persons, I used to caution people in other countries that the solution to human trafficking was not higher walls and tougher border security; it’s attentiveness to the nature of the migrants.
So, one, when you discover irregular migration or undocumented migration on the soil of your country, have an eye – law enforcement and immigration officials – play a part for whether someone is being subject to gross exploitation, force, fraud or coercion. And, you do have to have an eye for those who are, in fact, refugees.
There is a moral, legal and treaty obligation of countries to look out for those who are refugees. There are those who are fleeing from extremists and from brutal dictatorship – for instance fleeing from the Middle East to North Africa. We in the United States, or those in Europe, need to be attentive to the real cases of refugees.
How can we stop the human trafficking and abuse of refugees? How can we tell the difference between “trafficking” and “people smuggling”? And what’s the best policy response? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!