An exhausted Syrian family sleeps on an Italian Navy coastguard ship after being rescued from a fishing boat trying to cross the Mediterranean.

An exhausted Syrian family sleeps on an Italian Navy coastguard ship after being rescued from a fishing boat trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Today, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide has reached nearly 60 million, the highest number since World War II. Almost 20 million of these are refugees: people who have fled their country of origin because of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Close to 40 million are people displaced within their own country, known as internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – also known as the UN Refugee Agency – protects and assists both refugees and IDPs in over 125 countries. UNHCR also works on behalf of stateless individuals, who are not recognized as citizens of any State.

Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk recently addressed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Alliance against Trafficking in Persons about the intersection of human trafficking and forced displacement:

First, survivors of trafficking may become refugees, fearing return to their countries of origin due to threats by traffickers and criminal gangs made against them and their families…Second, refugees and IDPs fleeing conflict and violence may, in addition, become survivors of trafficking. In times of crisis and conflict, state structures are weakened, enabling criminal gangs and networks to operate more freely. Large numbers of people may be displaced either within their country or across borders, living with considerable physical insecurity and limited access to protection and assistance. In these contexts, the risks of human trafficking are exacerbated, especially for single women and unaccompanied or separated children living in desperate circumstances.

The Department of State’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons report details the countless situations across the globe where refugees face the dangers of human trafficking. A high number of underage marriages take place among Syrian refugees in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan. Some Colombian refugees in Ecuador are forced to work on palm oil plantations. In Thailand, stateless individuals and members of ethnic minorities, such as the Rohingya from Myanmar, are at greater risk of being trafficked. Somali, South Sudanese, and other refugee children in Kenya and Northern Uganda encounter exploitation through prostitution and forced labor. Eritreans, Sudanese and Ethiopians face abuse, torture, and extortion at the hands of traffickers.

To address these horrors, UNHCR works to register and document refugees and other displaced people and monitor and assess the conditions they face. States face challenges in promptly identifying survivors of trafficking, which is especially true in “mixed migration” situations, where refugees and other migrants make use of the same routes. UNHCR also works to help governments enhance their own legal frameworks to ensure that refugees have the right to seek legal protection and are not returned to dangerous situations.

As the Assistant High Commissioner concluded: “[T]he growing number of people forcibly displaced globally means an increasing number of individuals who may be at heightened risk of trafficking. This requires that we intensify our efforts both to hold perpetrators to account and to protect survivors. Now, more than ever, is meaningful, substantial, and concerted action urgently required by us all.”

Jana Mason is Senior Advisor for External Relations and Government Affairs at the Washington, D.C. office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).