The issue of mass refugee displacement has been a growing concern worldwide, with the conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the U.S. southern border crisis leading to a surge of those seeking safety and a better life. Unfortunately, this mass influx of refugees often creates an environment of chaos and instability that is conducive to human trafficking. Traffickers capitalize on the vulnerability of refugees, preying upon them before, during and after their journey, and even when refugees are able to settle in a new community they remain vulnerable to exploitation, as both adults and children can be subjected to modern-day slavery. Police have the opportunity to identify and rescue victims of human trafficking, investigate and prosecute those committing the crimes and work with those in susceptible communities to prevent trafficking in their respective areas.
Human trafficking is a global problem that affects millions of people, both children and adults, every year. According to the International Labour Organization, an estimated 50 million people were victims of human trafficking in 2021. Human trafficking is a form of slavery in which victims are forced into labor or sexual exploitation. Traffickers use a variety of methods to recruit, transport and control their victims, including physical and psychological abuse, deception and manipulation.
The influx of refugees into the United States resulting from the conflict in Ukraine, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the northern triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has created an environment in which human trafficking can easily take root. Refugees often find themselves desperate and vulnerable, making them prime targets for traffickers. Furthermore, their lack of legal and cultural knowledge of the United States can make it difficult for refugees to report abuse or seek help, and the stigma associated with terms such as “illegal aliens” or “criminal aliens” based on refugee or asylee status can be both dehumanizing and detrimental, when in fact, these individuals may be victims of human trafficking (Soltis & Walters, 2018).
Causes of human trafficking
There are several causes of human trafficking, including poverty, conflict, violence, government corruption, climate, and social and cultural factors. The mass displacement of people to the United States has caused a disruption in social and economic structures, leaving refugees vulnerable to exploitation. The desperation of refugees to find work and support their families can make them easy targets for traffickers, who may even offer to help them cross borders or find employment, only to then enslave or sexually exploit them. When people are unable to meet their basic needs, they are highly susceptible to falling victim to traffickers, and in some cases, even family members may exploit their own children (Healy, 2016).
The role of criminal networks
Criminal networks play a significant role in fueling human trafficking. These networks are often transnational, with traffickers operating across borders and exploiting refugees from multiple countries. The profits from human trafficking are significant, with the International Labour Organization estimating that the industry generates $150 billion in illegal profits each year. The anonymity of the internet has also made it easier for traffickers to recruit and control their victims. Police agencies can prioritize efforts to disrupt criminal networks involved in human trafficking that target refugee communities. This can include efforts to identify and prosecute traffickers, as well as working with national partners, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Border Patrol and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to disrupt transnational criminal networks.
Learn about the people
Refugees or those navigating the U.S. immigration system are members of the community in which they reside, and as such, they share responsibility for keeping it safe. However, to do this effectively, they must understand how and why. Establishing open lines of communication between police and refugees is essential when trying to address the problem of human trafficking that results from large-scale refugee displacement. Language can often be the biggest barrier, but by understanding the culture of the population, learning some key phrases in another language or utilizing nonverbal communication techniques, trust between immigrants and the police can begin to take hold.
Mass refugee displacement, such as that resulting from the conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and from those fleeing the northern triangle countries, can create an environment that is conducive to human trafficking. The vulnerability of refugees, combined with the potential for high profits from exploiting them, makes them easy targets for traffickers. To address the issue of human trafficking in the refugee context, a comprehensive approach is needed that addresses the root causes of the problem, provides protection and support to refugees, and targets criminal networks involved in trafficking. Police play a key role in this, as refugees will eventually become part of their local communities. Police can work with community leaders to build trust and help ensure that refugees are protected from exploitation.