“Today is a special day for me. It is the day when good has triumphed over evil, the day when humanity defeated terrorism, the day that the children and women who have suffered persecution have triumphed over the perpetrators of these crimes.
I hope that today marks the beginning of a new era – when peace is the priority, and the world can collectively begin to define a new roadmap to protect women, children and minorities from persecution, in particular victims of sexual violence.”
With these words, Nadia Murad, Nobel Peace Prize 2018 Laureate, started her acceptance speech in Oslo when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Of Yazidi origins and based in the North of Iraq, Nadia was captured and taken into slavery by the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on September 2014. Just like many Yazidi individuals, most of Nadia’s family members were killed, except for the younger women, who were held captive and sexually exploited. She was taken to Mosul and sold to different men who would rape her on a daily basis, and torture her if she tried to escape. However, one day, one of her captors forgot to lock the doors when leaving the house, and she was able to escape. She was transferred to a refugee camp and then to Germany, where she currently lives. Since she fled the ISIS dominated territory, she has been working as an activist in the fight against trafficking in persons in conflicts, and particularly in raising awareness about the ISIS genocidal campaign against Yazidis and other minority groups. She founded her own organization, Nadia’s Initiative, which advocates for victims of sexual violence in conflicts.
The United Nations has developed a Protocol to “Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children”. This protocol includes a special definition on human trafficking, referring to it as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception […] for the purpose of exploitation […].”
Human trafficking is a matter of global concern. It makes enormous profits every year and affects large amounts of people, with women and children being the most vulnerable. Criminals might engage in human trafficking activities in order to make great financial benefits, but also to spread fear among communities, to recruit soldiers or even slaves, or to perpetuate terrorist attacks, as is it for the case of human trafficking in conflicts. Those scenarios, characterized by violence and brutality, provide a breeding ground for human trafficking criminals to act with apparent impunity.
Self-proclaimed ISIS, similarly to other terrorist groups, often recruited young European girls through the internet. On social media, they became friends or even faked a loving relationship with young girls, taking advantage of their vulnerability. They offered them to move to the territories of the ISIS, where they were normally promised a better, rich and happy life. These girls usually decided to travel to the areas dominated by ISIS, only to find out that they have been deceived and sold as sexual slaves or to become ISIS combatants’ wives. In this case, even though victims travelled to the ISIS territories of their own free will, they did it after having been deceived and with the purpose of being exploited later, which, according to the UN definition of human trafficking, falls into the definition of trafficking of persons as well. Another world known example was the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls by terrorist group Boko Haram, with the aim of forcing them to marry the terrorist group’s fighters in Nigeria in 2014. This case drew attention in particular; due to widespread calls from important political figures, such as Michelle Obama, to bring the girls home safe.
But victims of human trafficking in conflict zones are not only those who are targeted by combatants, terrorists or armed forces. In fact, due to their vulnerability, displaced persons and refugees are often taken advantage of by opportunistic organized crime organizations to be trafficked for forced labor or sexual exploitations. It is quite common as well that organized crime networks offer to smuggle refugees fleeing conflict or war and end up exploiting them.
And lastly, even the ones that should be ensuring that these crimes cease to happen, the ones that must guarantee the conflicts’ victims protection and assistance, the peacekeeping forces, have found themselves involved in human trafficking scandals in areas affected by war. Prominent cases include Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Balkan conflict or in the Central African Republic, where many trafficked girls and women were abused by UN Peacekeeping officers, to the shame of the whole international community.
The lack of legal guarantees and tools to fight crimes, together with the insecurity and basic services that characterize conflict areas provide a very convenient context for criminals and armed groups to make profits or any other gain at the expense of commercializing and exploiting vulnerable individuals, especially women and children. Human trafficking is one of the most profitable existing illegal criminal businesses. It violates the most basic human rights and dignity of many individuals every day and poses an important threat to global security. That is why it is so important to invest enough resources and efforts to counter it, as well as to prosecute and establish severe convictions for those perpetrating these crimes and making sure that they do not remain unpunished.
Julia Vázquez Santiago