Trafficking of Immigrants and Refugees

By Shima Rostami, Ed.D.; Executive Director, Gateway Human Trafficking

With the number of forcefully displaced people hitting a record of 68.5 million in 2017 (Edwards, 2018), experts say a lack of legal support and funding has enabled a multibillion-dollar criminal network of Human Trafficking and Smuggling of refugees and immigrants to thrive.

According to a June study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC, 2018), about 2.5 million migrants were smuggled across borders — an operation worth about $5.5 billion to $7 billion in 2016 alone. As could be expected, the countries most affected are in proximity to the conflict zones creating waves of global refugees.

Across the globe, violent conflict and its consequences parallel crisis gets far less attention—which creates weakened legal infrastructure and increases economic instability (Zenko, 2017). This has left tens of millions of immigrants and refugees especially women and children vulnerable to sex and labor trafficking.

The sexual abuse and trafficking of immigrants and refugees is a little-acknowledged facet of the refugee crisis. However, it is a very real part of life for many forced to flee their homes because of violence. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 35,556 migrants have died since 2014 with 1,198 death record in 2020 alone (Missing Migrnats, 2020). The conditions in which migrants travel can not only be deadly, but also open venues through which they can become entrapped in sex and labor trafficking rings. In some circumstances, migrants voluntarily make the decision to take on sex work—which smugglers promise will be lucrative and not require foreign language skills or documentation—as a means of surviving strategy.

Humanity is experiencing an unprecedented level of large-scale mobility. Many migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are subject to serious harms in their home countries, in transit, and in the host countries where they seek residence. While in transit after having been displaced from their homes, they are exposed to a variety of risks, including: death; exploitation by traffickers; indefinite stays in camps where there is limited safety especially for women and girls; exclusion from transit countries; and threats to the survival and well-being of children and families due to lack of employment, health, education, and other resources (Crandall, Williams, & Clayton, 2017). Within host countries, they might experience complex social, religious, economic, and political challenges due to xenophobia, racism, and other forms of intolerance, which put their physical, mental, and social well-being at risk.

While immigrants and refugees face challenges during migration and post-migration period—those who resettle in the United States can enjoy access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the very principles on which America was founded (Crandall, Williams, & Clayton, 2017). Given the historical and critical role of the United States as a global sanctuary and resettling refugees requires having the America’s community prepared to continue welcoming refugees. It should be noted that people who found shelter in the United States have made immeasurable contributions to the American society, providing labor and economic energy, spurring innovation, adding to the nation’s cultural diversity and culinary flavors, and making great accomplishments in the arts, literature, and science.

A well-prepared accepting community who is aware of the journey of immigrants will help refugees no longer exposed to the trauma of war, gang violence, poverty, famine, and persecution that drove them from their countries of origin. As diverse cultural perspectives can inspire creativity and drive innovation, it is crucial to make sure the current and future generation value accepting and welcoming immigrants and refugees as assets and important contributors to our society all around the world.

Developing any program to help community members- as the accepting culture- understand the hardships of what immigrants and refugees experience-especially vulnerable children- will create a more welcoming culture in which immigrant families especially their children could thrive and enrich the accepting culture. In December 2019 and Feb 2020, Gateway Human Trafficking (GHT) piloted a program focused on Character Education to teach a group of K-12 students about the journey of immigrants and refugees’ children and the difficulties these children go through.

In the evaluation segment, after the training, GHT asked our program participants- in St. Louis, MO- to take a moment and ask themselves about what they were grateful for. The same question was asked from a group of immigrants and refugees’ children in another program who were in some camps in Lebanon.

Here are responses from refugees’ children from camps in Lebanon (Reed, 2019):

Yazan, a fourteen-year-old refugee child in a camp- in Lebanon- was thankful to be safe this year. He said, “I am thankful for our safety, and the opportunity we had to get safely out of our house in Syria after bombings shattered it apart. My mother was stuck inside but, thank God, she got out safe.”

Sara, an eleven-year-old who lives with her mother, father, and six younger siblings in a camp in Akkar that arrived the camp seven years ago to escape the war in Syria stated, “I am thankful for my father’s safety and that he did not die in the war, like other fathers,” she says. “I am also thankful that we are not homeless.”

Here are responses from GHT’s program participants in St. Louis, MO:

“S” 11-year-old said, “I am thankful for my family, that we can afford shelter, food, water, clothes. Also, we are safe.” “A” 16-year-old was thankful for his “friends” and “D”16 was thankful “for being able to be around his family and friends without having to worry about his safety.” Then, “B” 14-years-old was thankful for “being born in the U.S.”

Furthermore, GHT asked our program participants in St. Louis to describe their emotions and feelings in one word after participating in the program considering what they learned about the journey of immigrants and refugees’ children. They responded, “changed, inspired, grateful, sad, very grateful, surprised, and lucky.”

Refugee children found hope in thankfulness

Across the world, refugee children were asked the same question; “what they were grateful for?” Their answers were beautiful and humbling, yet remarkably similar. The kids were not recent refugees, but veterans, as many have been living outside of their home countries in camps for years. The war stole their childhood, and now poverty is stealing their education. As refugees, most of these youth do not attend school. Instead, they spend their days selling CDs and other items on the streets of the countries they are in transition or in camps. But still, they have hope (Reed, Syrian refugee children find hope in thankfulness, 2019).

Watch this video to learn how this 5-year-old Syrian refugee is working to feed his family.

Challenges responding to COVID-19 in refugee camps around the world

As COVID-19 spreads across continents, many organizations are working around the clock to prevent the pandemic from wreaking devastation on refugees’ vulnerable populations who already face humanitarian crises. In cramped camp settings, measures to avoid community transmission of the virus, such as physical distancing and frequent hand-washing, would be difficult to implement. Over 80 per cent of the world’s refugees and nearly all the world’s internally displaced people are hosted in low- and middle-income countries, where health systems are mostly weak. As of 16 April, 122 refugee-hosting countries reported local transmission of COVID-19 (Department of Global Communications, 2020).

Here are some reports from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) project, Doctors Without Borders from several refugee camps all around the world (n.d., 2020):

In Greece, MSF is providing medical aid on the islands of Samos and Lesbos, including support for people under isolation with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19. We are also calling for the immediate evacuation of refugees and asylum seekers trapped in squalid camps, high-risk environments for COVID-19 transmission.

In Dagahaley camp, in Dadaab, Kenya's largest refugee camp, MSF has set up an isolation unit with 10 beds for potential COVID-19 patients, with the capacity to expand to 40 beds. We've also set up isolation rooms at Mrima health center in Likoni subcounty, Mombasa, which will allow women with COVID-19 to give birth safely.

In Tanzania, MSF is the sole health care provider in Nduta refugee camp, which hosts 75,000 Burundian refugees. In preparation for a COVID-19 outbreak in the camp we have built four triage/isolation areas in each of the health clinics where we work in the camp. We completed preparation of an isolation center at the MSF hospital, where suspected cases of COVID-19 will be referred.

In Boa Vista, Roraima state, an MSF team visited informal shelters where migrants and refugees from Venezuela have gathered, providing hygiene and physical distancing education, expanding access to water, and distributing hygiene kits.

In Bangladesh, in addition to maintaining regular medical activities in the Rohingya refugee camps, teams are organizing dedicated waiting areas for people with symptoms of COVID-19.



Call: 1 (888) 373-7888

SMS: 233733 (Text "HELP" or "INFO")

Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week

Languages: English, Spanish and 200 more languages


Call: 314-615-8618

Email: humantrafficking@stlouisco.com

Sources: Crandall, C., Williams, W., & Clayton, S. (2017, Feb 9). Welcoming Refugees and Immigrants Is Good for the U.S. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sound-science-sound-policy/201702/welcoming-refugees-and-immigrants-is-good-the-us

Edwards, A. (2018, June 19). Retrieved from UNHCR USA: https://www.unhcr.org/news/stories/2018/6/5b222c494/forced-displacement-record-685-million.html

Missing Migrnats. (2020, Februry 21). Retrieved from Missing Migrnats Tracking Deaths Along Migratory Routes: https://missingmigrants.iom.int/

Reed, L. (2019, November 13). Syrian refugee children find hope in thankfulness. Retrieved from World Vision: https://www.worldvision.org/refugees-news-stories/syrian-refugee-children-find-hope-in-thankfulness

Sasaki, S. J., & Vorauer, J. D. (2013). Ignoring versus exploring differences between groups: Effects of salient color-blindness and multiculturalism on intergroup attitudes and behavior. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(4), 246-259.

UNODC. (2018, June 13). Retrieved from UNODC: https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/2018/June/at-least-2-5-million-migrants-smuggled-worldwide-in-2016--says-unodc-study.html

Zenko, M. (2017, May 8). Sex Trafficking and the Refugee Crisis: Exploiting the Vulnerable. Retrieved from Council on Foreign Relations: https://www.cfr.org/blog/sex-trafficking-and-refugee-crisis-exploiting-vulnerable

n.d. (2020, July 12). Facts and Figures about coronavirus disease outbreak: COVID-19. Retrieved from Doctors Without Borders : https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/covid19?source=ADD200U0U03&utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=googlegrant&utm_content=nonbrand&utm_term=covid&gclid=Cj0KCQjw6ar4BRDnARIsAITGzlC-dQD6BNZFnymNKCE_nc1mKb4wXSKRWVgRmfcpXSpPyJXgg9V95wsaAoFCEALw_w

Consider supporting Gateway Human Trafficking by sharing this article, giving a donation, or visiting our website. Follow us on Facebookor Twitter.

Become a Member

Join the base of annual givers and support our work by making a recurring or one-time contribution.

45 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All