Human Trafficking Helps Terrorists Earn Money and Strategic Advantage

The United States should get serious about ending slavery once and for all.

Playing cards showing details of missing children are displayed in Beijing on March 31, 2007.
Playing cards showing details of missing children are displayed in Beijing on March 31, 2007. China Photos/Getty Images

Twenty years ago, global leaders from nearly 120 countries joined forces through a new U.N. convention to agree on a universal definition of human trafficking and recommit themselves to ridding the world of it. That same year, the U.S. government enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to close gaps in U.S. law. Yet, despite near-universal pledges to eradicate the crime, human trafficking and modern slavery continue unabated, affecting more than 40 million people worldwide.

This failure poses a global threat: While human trafficking is rightfully condemned as a grave affront to human rights and dignity, it persists unchecked. As the United States renews its commitment to protecting freedom and ending slavery—with its annual observation of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention this month, culminating on National Freedom Day on Feb. 1—it should address the many ways that human trafficking imperils global security. Indeed, this practice supports terrorist and armed groups, bankrolls criminal organizations, enables abusive regimes, and undermines stability, according to a recent Council on Foreign Relations report written with my colleague, Rachel Vogelstein.

Part of the problem is that armed and violent extremist groups use trafficking as a direct tactic of war, generating profits and advancing their strategic aims. Insurgent groups—from central Africa’s Lord’s Resistance Army to Libyan militias—have used captives to expand military capabilities and support operations, with victims forced to serve as combatants, messengers, cooks, porters, and spies. Other terrorist organizations—including the Islamic State and Boko Haram—engage in sex trafficking. They use enslaved women to attract and mobilize male fighters and generate significant revenue as well. In 2014 alone, ransom payments extracted by the Islamic State amounted to between $35 million and $45 million. In other words, such groups use trafficking to expand their power and capabilities, thereby prolonging conflict.

Refugees and migrants are at particularly high risk of both labor and sex trafficking, and their numbers are increasing.

The scale of the problem is only growing, exacerbated by global challenges including forced migration. Refugees and migrants are at particularly high risk of both labor and sex trafficking, and their numbers are increasing—by the end of 2018, more than 70 million people had been forcibly displaced by violence, conflict, and persecution, close to double the figure a decade ago. Their lack of legal status leaves refugees and migrants vulnerable to exploitation; traffickers deliberately deceive workers about their country of final destination and their living and working conditions.

Transnational criminal groups in Southeast Asia, for example, prey on Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar, promising them lucrative employment in Malaysia only to hold them captive at sea in fishing vessels or in trafficking camps along the Malaysia-Thailand border. Traffickers earn an estimated $60,000 per ship by selling victims into further exploitation or demanding ransom from captives’ families, generating between $50 million and $100 million annually. In Central America, smugglers, criminals, and traffickers—emboldened by restrictive and punitive U.S. immigration policies—capitalize on migrants’ desperation to reach safety in the United States: Smugglers charge migrants exorbitant fees, and some leverage debt into forced labor or sexual exploitation. In that way, human trafficking bankrolls operations for transnational crime syndicates and extremist groups; forced labor produces an estimated $150 billion annually for perpetrators, making it one of the world’s most profitable crimes.

Beyond emboldening terrorist groups and bankrolling criminal activity, human trafficking also supports abusive regimes. Some repressive governments traffic their own citizens and compel them to labor in harsh conditions in order to bolster the economy or suppress dissent. The U.S. State Department estimates that the North Korean government, for example, has close to 100,000 forced laborers working abroad, mainly in China and Russia, often in harsh conditions. By taxing those overseas workers, the regime has generated more than $500 million annually, thereby helping it mitigate the effects of economic sanctions.

Even peacekeeping missions and military installations have contributed to an increase in human trafficking from the Balkans to Haiti to South Korea. Between 2001 and 2011, one study found that the presence of peacekeeping forces was positively correlated with forced prostitution, damaging public perceptions of the United Nations. Last year, U.S. government inspectors uncovered abuses by Defense Department contractors participating in labor trafficking. The contractors were allegedly hiring workers from third-party countries to work in a variety of support jobs—including food services—on U.S. bases in Kuwait (an issue previously documented on U.S. bases in Iraq); investigators found that the contractors had illegally charged recruitment fees to the victims, housed them in substandard conditions, and withheld their passports. Perpetrating sex and labor trafficking diminishes U.S. influence in tackling the very same crime.

The human cost that trafficking exacts on communities is detrimental and long lasting: the associated stigma—particularly in instances of sexual exploitation and children being used by armed groups—marginalizes survivors, creating a cycle of poverty that is difficult to break and impeding the recovery efforts in post-conflict societies

Despite the security implications of human trafficking, convictions for trafficking offenses are rare, programs focused on prevention and protection are underresourced, and most efforts to address human trafficking are detached from broader conflict prevention, security, and counterterrorism initiatives. The issue of trafficking has been seen as a concern primarily of human rights activists, not of the national security community. However, a growing body of research and evidence suggests that as security threats converge, human trafficking becomes a threat multiplier, since it finances other criminal activities and foments greater insecurity.

To prevent human trafficking and advance global security, governments should do more to disrupt the criminal networks and terrorist groups that exploit conflict-related human trafficking while prioritizing the prevention and prosecution of human trafficking in conflicts. They should apply travel bans and asset freezes on human traffickers; pursue trafficking and sexual slavery charges against Islamic State affiliates; collect intelligence on human trafficking in locations where they already track drug and arms trafficking; and lead by example by ensuring that their own practices don’t lead to more victimization.

Human trafficking is a threat to both human rights and global stability, bolstering terrorist groups, transnational crime networks, and repressive regimes. Ignoring its spread undermines our collective efforts to advance a more peaceful and secure world.

Jamille Bigio is a senior fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former director for human rights and gender on the White House National Security Council staff.  Twitter: @jamillebigio

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