The vulnerability and risk factors for human exploitation and trafficking are elevated for those caught in the refugee crisis. Generally, we see two categories of refugees: those who are seeking asylum and those who are migrating for economic reasons. Both categories are vulnerable to recruiting and exploitation by traffickers.
Economic migrants are always pursuing a better life where they can better support themselves and their families and build a stable economic future. Asylum seekers are fleeing the violence of gangs, war and conflict, and/or religious persecution. Their homes are no longer safe. Returning is not an option. On a recent Study-Abroad trip to Athens, Greece, my students and I met families whose homes were no longer standing. In one case, Dad was a dentist; mom was an engineer. Their goals were simply to escape and protect their children—to start a new life where their family would be safe.
Economic migration is also perilous. The dream to escape poverty can quickly turn into a nightmare. The journey itself is dangerous and often involves unsavory dealings with smugglers and unscrupulous exploiters who make promises of a job that turns into human trafficking. Sadly, the dream of a better life quiets any alarms that sound along the way, and the migrant dares to believe the exploiter and hopes for the best.
What about the children? Whether the parents are seeking asylum or economic migration, the children are more vulnerable to exploitation. Europol’s Brian Donald said 5,000 children had disappeared in Italy alone, while another 1,000 were unaccounted for in Sweden. He warned that a sophisticated pan-European “criminal infrastructure” was now targeting refugees. “It’s not unreasonable to say that we’re looking at 10,000-plus children.” The plight of unaccompanied child refugees has emerged as one of the most pressing issues in the migrant crisis. (Jan 2016). Some of the chaos results in actual child abduction, however, that is not the most common method.
Consider the experience of the child. The child is on the move with the family, escaping violence or poverty. Running from a nightmare or chasing a dream. The child often feels helpless but desperately wants his family to be safe. Someone in the camp says to a 12, 14, 16 year old boy or girl, “There is something you can do to help your family.” The “opportunity” is discussed and the offer is accepted. The exploiter promises to get the youth to an agreed upon destination where someone will have a job and other resources for them and later he can send for his or her family. The youth has attended the meetings with his family and knows there is risk, but is sure that he can handle it. The exploiters have appealed to his youthful sense of invincibility. “That won’t happen to me,” she thinks. “I’m smarter and can evade their traps. I’ll work hard in the restaurant, hotel, factory and save the money to send to my parents. I’ll help my family.”
Who among us would not do whatever we could to rescue our family? Who would put his own personal safety over the safety of his family, his little sister or brother? It is easier to make travel arrangements for just one of you, the exploiter explains. You can send for them when you are settled. It sounds risky, but doable. The parents may even know when it’s an older youth taking this chance, but they knew when they left that every single day was filled with risk. When there are no options, the risks are not proportionate. Consider the risk of leaving your 3 bedroom 2 bath suburban apartment to take a job in a country you’ve never been to and do not speak the language. Your response? “No thank you.” Now consider the risk of leaving your detainment camp with four bunks in a room to take a job where there might be a way out. The risk equation looks very different.
The outcomes are filled with stories of youth trafficked for sex and for labor. Some have been forced into criminal activity carrying drugs or selling stolen goods. Others are sold into the voracious sex industry.
How do we stop it? Clearly the warnings are not very effective. Every refugee center has stacks of posters and pamphlets explaining the risks. The answer is building in options. This is a global crisis, not just a US based issue. It requires a new way of thinking about refugees. Reports during the refugee crisis in the US have identified not millions, but billions, of dollars dedicated to secure housing and detention. When home isn’t safe, what are the options? How can we reimagine options? How can we build resilience? WE are the answer. We can help build in options for refugees.
We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook at www.facebook.com/vugcwj and in person at Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice annual conference, Ensure Justice, the first weekend in March. The 2019 theme is “When Home Isn’t Safe” and will include domestic issues of child abuse, intimate partner violence, refugees fleeing conflict zones, and substance abuse issues. Early bird registration is at www.EnsureJustice.com.