The Intersection Between the Worldwide Refugee Crisis and Human Trafficking

Bilal Hussein/AP

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.”

Why We Should Care About Adoption Rehoming

“A sick thing”. “Human trafficking in children”. “A gaping loophole with life threatening outcomes”. These are just few of the ways experts, legislators and judges have named unregulated private transfers of child custody, a practice referred to as re-homing.

Private re-homing occurs when adoptive parents transfer the custody of a child bypassing official channels. In such cases, parental authority is transferred with a simple Power of Attorney to non-family members.

Very often these people are perfect strangers whose parenting abilities have not been screened by child welfare authorities or, worse, have been judged so poor that their biological children have been taken away by child protection services.

According to an investigation published by Reuters in 2013, hundreds of children are victims of re-homing in the USA every year. 70 percent of them are children adopted from abroad.

“Rehoming can be an appropriate change of placement for a child if it is done with court approval and with home study that look at the needs of the child and the child’s best interests,” said Stephen Pennypacker, a senior child welfare expert and current President of the Partnership for Strong Families, in an interview.

However, the problem with private rehoming is that it is not done with that oversight and the necessary background screening on the prospective placement. “This can lead to some pretty horrific consequences for children that are moved under those circumstances,” Pennypacker said.

One such case happened in Arkansas in 2014, when a six-year-old girl was sexually abused by a man who had obtained her custody via a private re-homing procedure. The case received intense scrutiny only last February as the media reported that the adoptive father who gave the little girl away was a state legislator, Justin Harris.

Arkansas has since then passed two laws to prevent this practice, becoming the fifth state to have regulated it. A few other states are slowly discussing bills to this effect, while no federal law regulates it.

In a court decision in the State of New York last December, Judge Edward W. McCarty III defined the practice “unmistakably trafficking in children” and called on the Legislature to amend domestic law to prohibit this “unsavory and unsupervised practice”.

This judgment came to no surprise to Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, British Columbia Representative for Children and Youth. “Rehoming sounds like a positive experience that is looking at the best interests of the child, but actually it simply transfers a child to another person without any required review by child welfare, family judges, or other officials. So it could be easily a cover for trafficking in children.”

Other child experts echo the concerns about the risks that unregulated re-homing poses to a child’s wellbeing, although they do not consider re-homing as trafficking because parents do not move children to exploit them, but to get rid of them. “All under the table dealing on children’s matters entails risks of exploitation,” said Michael Moran, INTERPOL Assistant Director, Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation, in a phone interview. “Unregulated re-homing creates opportunities for sex offenders. If loopholes exist, sex offenders will use them.”

Reasons that push parents to resort to private re-homing vary from case to case. The most common explanation given by parents engaging in such a practice is that they feel overwhelmed by the behavioral problems of their adopted children. They also claim that the support they receive from child welfare authorities to deal with difficult adoption cases is inadequate. In another case, parents may fear to be charged with child abandonment if they seek to transfer custody to the state. Financial considerations may also play a role because certain states accept taking a child under their custody only on the condition that parents pay for the child’s care until a new adoption takes place.

Some state and federal authorities have acknowledged these problems and are trying to address them. State legislation has been adopted in Arkansas to strengthen post-adoption services and allow parents to give children back to the state’s care if they have exhausted the available resources – although no definition of what these resources are is provided. At the federal level, the US President’s 2016 budget contains a proposal that would guarantee federal funding for prevention and post-placement services.

Whether such initiatives will suffice to prevent rehoming is an open question, though, in particular as the practice remains largely lawless in the USA. So far, only five states – Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, and Wisconsin – have adopted legislation to prevent re-homing. Five other states – Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, and North Carolina – are discussing bills to this effect.

“This kind of regulatory void is enormously concerning,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, professor of the practice of health and human rights at Harvard School of Public Health. “Clearly, we need much tighter regulation and more supervising and support to families.”

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