The worldwide refugee crisis, largely spurred by the historic mass migration of people from war-torn Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, are seeking refuge around the world. Many of these individuals are unaccompanied minors and are at even greater risk of exploitation with no social support from their family and sometimes no support from the host country where they are seeking refuge. Some of these individuals have been targeted by human traffickers who are taking this opportunity to exploit their vulnerability.
Many unaccompanied refugee youth have entered the sex industry in Greece as a result having no other means to support themselves. Many are teenage boys, a group often overlooked as potential sex trafficking victims, are trading sex to meet their basic needs. Many of these youth have nowhere to stay and no way to support themselves. This is a commonality with many runaways in the United States that are lured into the sex industry with the promise of a having some place to stay. CNN also reported there are around 1200 unaccompanied minors living on the streets of Greece with no place to stay—but it is believed to be much higher.
Other reports suggest approximately 10,000 unaccompanied refugee minors are unaccounted for and may have been trafficked by underground criminal networks. The United Kingdom is proposing to halt unaccompanied refugee minors entry into the country after only accepting 350 of them. Advocates fear this move will lead to an increase in human trafficking while leaving them with no formal support system and no ability to stay in their war-torn home countries.
Meanwhile, in the United States unaccompanied refugee minors from Central America and other countries are also at risk. In 2014, several unaccompanied refugee minors from Central America were accidentally released by a shelter to human traffickers and forced to work on an egg farm in Ohio where traffickers threatened to kill them if they left. When historic numbers of unaccompanied minors entered the US in 2014, there was an increase in trafficking visas issued to children as traffickers once again exploited this vulnerable population.
In Iraq and Syria, ISIS has been targeting the religious minority Yazidi, forcing them to flee as refugees. Many of the women and girls have been captured by ISIS militants and forced to ‘marry’ or are used as sex slaves for the men. Again, like other victims of human trafficking, the women and girls are systematically raped and traded among ISIS fighters. The New York Times estimates that 3,144 Yazidi women and girls are still being held captive. One courageous Yazidi woman escaped her captivity and has been telling her story to bring awareness of the others that are still being held captive.
Human trafficking is an exploitation of vulnerability and refugees can be among the most vulnerable populations. As a result, it is necessary that providers be aware of the potential risk factors leading to trafficking, be able to identify and assess for trafficking, and be able to provide trauma-informed care to those that may have been trafficked. This is a clear issue of social justice and re-emphasizes the humanitarian necessity of assisting vulnerable refugee populations—particularly children. Likewise, policy can be crucial in providing the resources to support refugee populations that may be at risk.
With the scale of the problem being so vast, complex, and multi-faceted, it can feel like any effort at combatting this issue cannot possibly make an impact. Yet, social workers are at the intersection of mental health, the medical field, the justice system and the school system as well as various social service agencies. Social workers may likely be the first to identify a trafficking victim which places us in a unique position to make a real difference for this population.
What can you do to help?
• Educate yourself on the issue of human trafficking and let others know what you’ve learned. Attend a workshop or training on this issue.
• Learn how to assess whether an individual may be trafficked. As a social worker, you may be the first person to identify a potential trafficking victim.
• If you think someone may be trafficked report a tip to the Polaris Project hotline: at 1888-373-7888.
• Host a film screening on the human trafficking to raise awareness, such as A Path Appears.
• Make a donation to an agency working with survivors. Tangible needs for survivors of human trafficking may include: clothing, toiletries, money for rental assistance/getting a first apartment, bus passes. This can include international agencies working with survivors.
• Survivors of human trafficking also have long-term needs in order for them to become self-sufficient. This may include GED classes or ESL classes, medical services, counseling services, job placement services and immigration services. Consider whether your agency may be willing to help provide some of these services for survivors.
• Become a mentor for a survivor. Continue to advocate for vulnerable refugee populations around the world, particularly unaccompanied minors who may be at the greatest risk. Educate others on the worldwide refugee crisis and our responsibility as social workers to take a role in addressing this issue as one of social justice.
While it is an audacious goal, we must aspire to end human trafficking in our time and renew our commitment to serving vulnerable refugee populations. As abolitionist William Wilberforce is quoted as saying, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”
Elizabeth Ringler-Jayanthan is a licensed social worker and a Trauma Sensitive Yoga Facilitator (TCTSY-F) in Pittsburgh, Pa where she works as a trauma therapist at a rape crisis center. She has worked extensively with survivors of forced migration including refugees, asylum seekers and survivors of human trafficking. She is a graduate of the Global Mental Health Certificate Program with the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma (HPRT). She is passionate about issues related to social justice including animal welfare and the environment.