UN Security Council Debate on trafficking in persons in conflict situations: forced labour, slavery and other similar practices
Remarks of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland OBE
As the United Kingdom’s first appointed Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, my role is to spearhead the UK’s efforts to tackle modern slavery, both domestically and internationally.
We are here today in recognition of the fact that conflict has become a major driver of modern slavery across the globe.
Terrorist organisations openly advocate slavery as a tactic of war. Daesh has targeted minority groups for forced labour and sexual exploitation. It has established slave markets where women and children are sold with price tags attached.
Conflict also produces an environment that enables modern slavery to flourish. Erosion of the rule of law enables transnational trafficking networks to act with impunity.
And conflict results in the displacement of vulnerable people who are then targeted by the traffickers. The wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia alone are responsible for more than half the world’s refugees. The number of displaced has risen to 65 million, the largest figure ever recorded.
Men, women and children fleeing conflict are extremely vulnerable to numerous forms of modern slavery, including sexual exploitation, forced labour, and even organ trafficking.
Europol has confirmed that traffickers are increasingly targeting refugees in the EU.
And nearly half of all refugees are children, many of whom are unaccompanied and therefore especially vulnerable.
Conflict and ungoverned routes
I met Sarah, a 15 year old Eritrean girl, at a reception camp in Lampedusa. Sarah had been kidnapped and held for 3 months in Libya in a so-called “connection house”, where she was sexually exploited multiple times every day.
In October last year the International Organization for Migration reported that over 70% of all migrants moving from North Africa to Europe had experienced exploitation and human trafficking, mainly in Libya.
A modern-day slave trade is now booming in Libya. Political, military and social conditions have created an environment where traffickers have thrived.
Militias are subjecting migrants to forced labour and sexual exploitation in detention centres until they pay off a ransom to allow passage to Europe.
These centres are forced labour camps, set up to profit from the organised exploitation of migrants.
Long-established transnational organised crime groups are also using power vacuums caused by conflict to increase their trafficking operations.
For example, for decades, transnational traffickers have operated in southern Nigeria, deceiving victims with false promises of better lives in Europe.
But what was a trickle of victims has now become a flow.
These criminals are taking advantage of conflict and instability in the Lake Chad Basin and in Libya and have massively scaled up their trafficking operations by utilising these now ungoverned routes.
In 2016 just over 11,000 Nigerian women arrived in Italy from Libya. This as an eightfold increase from the numbers arriving in 2014. The International Organization for Migration believes that 80% are trafficking victims destined for brothels across Europe.
I have visited Edo State, the main region where traffickers source their victims.
This trafficking is especially brutal in nature. Women who insist they will not work as prostitutes are tied up in a position called “the crocodile”: their hands are tied to their feet and they are left for days without food or water. Some are left to die as an example to others.
The UK Government recently announced at least £5 million to work in partnership with Nigeria to help tackle this trafficking at source. Prime Minister Theresa May has committed the UK to international leadership in combatting modern slavery.
Cross border collaboration to disrupt and dismantle transnational organised crime networks
Unless those behind this trade in human lives are pursued and punished, vulnerable people will continue to be sourced, used, abused and replaced, treated as mere commodities.
So I urge international organisations and Member States, and in particular their law enforcement and intelligence agencies, to prioritise efforts to increase cross border collaboration to investigate, disrupt and dismantle human trafficking networks that are profiting from conflict and human suffering.
We need high profile convictions of the organisers to act as a deterrent to others.
This can be achieved through increased use of joint investigation teams, multilateral prosecutions and data and intelligence sharing.
We need to get smarter at debriefing victims and sensitively sharing this information with law enforcement and victim support agencies, to inform both disruption and protection efforts.
All of the Nigerian survivors I met wanted to tell me about the identities, tactics and routes of traffickers. Unfortunately this information is not being routinely collected, analysed or acted on.
Embedding protections against slavery and trafficking in humanitarian responses
Much more must be done to protect the vulnerable.
I strongly welcome Resolution 2331, which called for proactive responses to protect against slavery and trafficking to be systematically integrated into humanitarian responses to conflicts and related emergencies.
This is urgent. On visits to reception centres I witnessed how the current absence of integrated protections is resulting in potential victims not being identified.
Traffickers view refugee camps as a rich source of new victims.
I have seen the positive impact that deployments of dedicated experts can have, including cultural mediators. But unfortunately at present this is the exception rather than the norm.
I would also encourage suitable training for all UN peacekeepers, as they will often be operating across routes known to be used by traffickers, in places such as Mali and Sudan.
Moving to a strategic and coordination international response
So we need a more strategic and holistic response.
Tackling the traffickers and protecting the vulnerable will only be achieved through utilising all levers at the international community’s disposal.
This means deploying the UN’s leverage through development and humanitarian efforts, criminal justice capacity building, political work and peacekeeping operations.
The integration of combatting modern slavery into the Sustainable Development Goals – and Goal 8.7 in particular – reflects the commitment of Member States to holistically tackle this crime.
I very much welcome the Secretary General’s leadership on this issue, and I know he will be reporting at the end of the year on implementation of Resolution 2331.
Until there is a more strategic international response, be in no doubt: this modern slavery crisis, fuelled by global conflict, will only get worse with each passing day.
Working across borders, traffickers are making huge profits at the expense of human suffering. The international community must act now.