June, 2020 Monthly Reflection

Refugees and Human Trafficking in the Context of a Pandemic

by Kathleen Bonnette, Th.D.

Globally, there are more than 70 million displaced people who have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution. A refugee is an officially recognized and vetted displaced person, who cannot return home and has some legal right to remain in a foreign country. There are nearly 26 million refugees worldwide—eighty-five percent of whom are hosted by developing countries, living in overcrowded and unsanitary camps or urban areas, with limited access to the job market, education, healthcare, and housing. These refugees are waiting to be resettled in other countries or for conditions in their homelands to become liveable, but sadly, only one percent of refugees are resettled each year. The U.S. historically has been the global leader in refugee resettlement, admitting approximately 80,000 refugees per year since 1954, but it has recently lost that title and has set the cap for refugee resettlement this year at 18,000 – the lowest number in history.

The wretched living conditions to which refugees, asylum-seekers, and displaced persons are subjected, combined with punitive measures enforced against them by countries with whom they seek safe haven (such as detention), make this population a prime target for human traffickers. In fact, more than 70 percent of people traveling to Europe through North Africa have been trafficked or exploited, and tens of thousands of Central Americans have been trafficked while fleeing their homelands for safety in the north. The promise of a job, the hope of reaching family without being detained, the guarantee of safe passage—all of these are used by traffickers to lure victims into exploitation. Once isolated in camps and urban areas, refugees can be easy prey for traffickers who exploit their desire for safety, work, and belonging.

The Covid-19 pandemic increases the vulnerability of refugees. People in “displaced communities are at high risk for contracting and spreading the virus,” since the cramped and unsanitary living spaces make it nearly impossible to maintain social distancing or sanitation guidelines. These communities often are denied access to health services and the formal labor market, and they typically are not included in public information campaigns—all of which exacerbate the threat of the pandemic. Further, only fifty percent of all refugees attended school prior to the pandemic, and research shows that refugee girls are less likely than boys to return to school after a disruption in their education. This “lack of financial security and the related lack of educational opportunities are also directly linked to an increase in women’s and girls’ reliance on negative coping mechanisms and the risk of exploitation.

These risks—including transactional sex, forced and early marriage, sexual abuse, and human trafficking—are also greater for women and girls who are forcibly displaced.” 

Traffickers thrive on crises such as this. Sadly, “it is unlikely that refugee women will be a priority [in rebuilding efforts].” As we begin to rebuild our world and consider ways to safeguard public health against future outbreaks, we should remember the unique vulnerabilities to which refugees and displaced persons are subjected, all of which are exacerbated by this pandemic—not least, human trafficking. Our efforts should focus on the “least of these” for both moral and strategic reasons.

Kathleen Bonnette, Th.D., is the Assistant Director of the Office of Justice, Peace, & Integrity of Creation with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Atlantic-Midwest Province.


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