Refugees. We see them in the news, on magazine covers, in our social media feeds. There are more than 15 million refugees worldwide, coming from such diverse places as Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Whether fleeing war, persecution, famine, or natural disaster, all have experienced devastation, and all hope to find safety and a better life at the end of their journey. Yet in every stage of that journey, refugees face danger—not just threats to their physical health and safety, but a very real risk of exploitation.
While any sort of migration is fraught with risk, refugees face an increased danger of being exploited for sexual and labor purposes. For women and children, who comprise eighty percent of the refugee population (UNHCR), the risks multiply exponentially. Particularly vulnerable are unaccompanied females, the elderly and disabled, and children who have been separated from their families. What are some factors that leave this diverse population highly susceptible to trafficking and abuse?
Ripe for Exploitation: Why Refugees Are at Risk
The precariousness of their situation can lead refugees to take risks they would not otherwise take, exposing them to dangers that other migrants would take care to avoid. The trauma inherent in the refugee experience also plays a role, as the resulting emotional damage often robs victims of their self-protective instincts and increases the tendency to engage in risky behavior. These issues render them ideal targets for those who prey on the powerless and defenseless.
Adding to their risk is the disruption of family and community structures that may have protected them in the past. Families are frequently separated during conflict, in flight, or at refugee camps, leaving women and children especially vulnerable. The social structures that may have embraced them in their home communities have often broken down as well. The resulting lack of protection, economic difficulty, and absence of emotional support leaves many refugees defenseless, desperate, and at risk of being exploited.
Finally, refugees often find themselves with little or no legal protection from those who would exploit them. Many are “stateless,” no longer belonging to a country and outside any form of governmental protection. Traditional justice systems no longer exist for them, leaving them without legal aid, support, defense, or representation.
With all of these issues leading to heightened vulnerability, each stage of a refugee’s journey brings exposure to specific risks.
As They Flee: Risks Refugees Face
The risk begins long before a refugee takes flight, with exodus often precipitated by a conflict situation such as war or foreign occupation. Implicit in such conditions are violence, a breakdown of law enforcement and justice systems, and economic disruption—all of which create a ripe environment for traffickers and predators. In addition, the presence of occupying troops brings an increase in sexual violence, while the need for laborers and soldiers results in increased labor trafficking and illegal military conscription.
Once in flight, refugees face a new set of hazards. The forced and desperate nature of their migration often leads them to take drastic measures, including seeking the help of smugglers to get them across international borders. These smugglers may victimize those they are purportedly helping, or they may work in close partnership with drug, sex, and labor traffickers. Refugees are also susceptible to exploitation by corrupt border patrol and labor enforcement agents and even security personnel.
Refugee camps carry their own unique set of risks. Most are not safe or peaceful places. High population density, a shortage of resources, lax security, and a disparity of power render the camps prime spots for exploitation. Refugees often share space with corrupt troops and government officials, traffickers and predators, and arms and drug smugglers. As with conflict situations, the presence of foreign troops and officials creates an increased demand for sexual “services,” leaving unaccompanied females particularly at risk. Children are sought out not only by sexual predators but also by “recruiters” seeking to conscript young soldiers.
Once settled in the country of asylum, a refugee’s susceptibility to risk does not end. The lingering psychological effects of trauma can leave a refugee less likely to tap into social support networks and less able to secure and hold a job. In addition, refugees often face barriers to legal employment, such as lack of authorization, unfamiliarity with local employers and employment practices, and language or dialect issues. The desperation created by such barriers can force women and children into “survival sex” and leave both men and women vulnerable to labor exploitation. All too often, the “new lives” awaiting refugees are not much better than the lives they have fled.
Circles of Protection: Addressing the Risk
Recognizing the unique risks refugees face, WAR, Int’l has extended a circle of protection to various refugee groups around the world. An Eastern European partner recently hosted a retreat for a large group of women from a refugee camp, teaching and nurturing them for several days. Several partners in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe have worked extensively with refugees, caring for orphaned children and providing shelter and job training for adults. Many of the women in partnering African programs are refugees from war-torn countries.
As various groups of refugees flash across your television or your social media feeds this week, remember the extraordinary risks they face, and pray for their safety and strength. Pray also for the partners of WAR, Int’l who reach out to them. Pray that as they nurture and empower the refugees in their care, they will also be able to share the Gospel with them, and that these precious ones who have suffered so much will come to know the One who is the ultimate Refuge.
[A great deal of the information in this article was taken from the web document, “Trafficking Risks for Refugees,” by Anne P. Wilson]