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Trafficking in persons and terrorism


Key facts

Trafficking in persons is a global problem, which concerns every country of the world as a country of origin, transit and/or destination. Although the exact number of victims is difficult to establish due to the often-hidden nature of the crime, UNODC has gathered data on victims of trafficking in persons since 2003, the year of entry into force of the United Nations Trafficking in Persons Protocol. Over this period, UNODC has collected information on about 225,000 victims of trafficking detected worldwide. In 2016, a peak of more than 24,000 detected victims was recorded (UNODC (b), 2018).

Trafficking for sexual exploitation and for forced labour are the most prominently detected forms, but trafficking victims can also be exploited in other ways. Victims are trafficked to be used as beggars, for forced or sham marriages, benefit fraud, production of pornography or for organ removal. The clear majority of the detected victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation (the most commonly detected form of trafficking) are females, while more than half of the victims of trafficking for forced labour are men (UNODC (b), 2018).

2019 accounts show that trafficking in persons is a lucrative business for armed groups around the world (UNCTED, 2019). There is, however, little evidence that this armed groups engage directly in transnational terrorist activities. More often than not, for instance, the smuggling and tracking routes are taxed by local and regional armed groups, with little evidence that they support, or are affiliated with, terrorist groups (UNCTED, 2019). At the same time, there is little doubt that terrorists systematically carry out acts of violence associated with human trafficking to achieve strategic objectives. Abduction, rape, sexual slavery, enslavement and other such acts have been used by terrorist groups to subjugate populations and advance their ideologies (UNCTED, 2019).

Example Box: ISIS/ISIL, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab

Recent actions by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL), also known as Daesh, and Boko Haram (Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati Wal-Jahad) in Nigeria have drawn attention to a growing nexus between terrorism and trafficking in persons (see e.g.: UNSC 2331 (2016), 2388 (2017) and remarks of the UN Secretary General, 2017). Terrorist groups engage in the trafficking of persons for three primary reasons: funding, fear, and recruitment (Welch, 2017).

Boko Haram (Nigeria) and Al-Shabaab (Somalia) have been documented trafficking children into soldier/fighter roles, as well as using them to carry out suicide bombings. ISIL recently justified its enslavement of women "as an act of protection" (Otten, 2017). ISIL has been reported as having created a market that both terrorizes women and generates a lucrative profit for the group. Women trafficked through the ISIL market are referred to as "Sabaya" meaning slave and are bought by wholesalers who photograph them and advertise them to potential buyers (Callimachi, 2015).

Direct linkages between these terrorist organizations on one side, and smuggling and trafficking groups on the other, remains uncertain. There is actually some evidence that the profits of smuggling and trafficking groups may suffer from the connections between irregular migration and terrorist organizations. For example, in the coastal town of Sabratha, in Libya, where ISIL took root in the country, smugglers saw the group as a threat to their business model and reportedly, bankrolled the fight against ISIL in 2015 (UNCTED, 2019).


Case Study: ISIS/ISIL Trafficking of Yazidi Women

The Yazidi people in Iraq practice a polytheistic oral religion and have long suffered discrimination. Despite their small size (500,000 of the 37 million people living in Iraq), the Yazidi have drawn the ire of ISIL, which has as one of its objectives the complete elimination of the Yazidi people. On 3 August 2014, ISIL attacked the Sinjar District, home to approximately 300,000 people. As part of this attack, ISIL carried-out a mass abduction of Yazidi women and girls over the age of eight (Otten, 2017). Thousands of Yazidis were executed or left to die, and an estimated 6,383 Yazidis - mostly women and children - were enslaved and transported to ISIL prisons, military training camps, and the homes of fighters across Syria and Iraq. According to Cathy Otten, by mid-2016, 2,590 women and children had escaped or been smuggled out of ISIL. In 2015, Rukmini Callimachi estimated that roughly 3,200 Yazidis were still missing.

Following their enslavement, ISIL sold the women in markets, electronically over a messenger app and in prisons. ISIL members and fighters also provided women and girls to middlemen who would sell them to local brokers. Otten reports the release of a video in late-2014, that shows young, bearded men sitting in a living room, wearing ammunition-vests and joking with one another about buying women.

"Today is distribution day, God willing."

"You can sell your slave or give her as a gift [...] You can do whatever you want with your share."

Sareta Ashraph explains that ISIL uses enslavement as a way to bring infidel women to Islam (Ashraph, 2017). Callimachi reports the enslavement and rape of young girls by Islamic fighters is justified as "ibadah," meaning worship. A 15-year old Yazidi girl shared her experience, "He said that raping me is his prayer to God. I said to him, 'What you're doing to me is wrong and it will not bring you closer to God.' And he said, 'No, it's allowed. It's halal" (Callimachi, 2015).

The institutional use of rape (sexual slavery) as a form of worship is a relatively new development in ISIL practice. It is particularly useful as a recruitment tool because, as Mia Bloom explains, rape as a form of worship is a perfect response to the so-called "marriage crisis" (Bloom, 2015). Marriage is a costly endeavour, which results in more than 50% of men aged 25-29 remaining unmarried because of the prohibitive costs (Otten, 2017). Joining ISIL provides young men with a way to get "married" and have access to women. In addition to theological justification for enslaving and raping women and girls, ISIL uses women and girls as "a reward for carrying out services for the community - slaves are presented as compensation to fighters." In 2014, ISIL published an article entitled "The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour," in its English-language magazine, Dabiq. By making public its intention to institutionalize slavery and rape, ISIL shocked many of its supporters. To address these concerns, ISIL released a set of best practices, which included rules about how slave/property owners are permitted to sell their slaves to other buyers. It also allowed owners of slaves to set their slaves free, which would result in a heavenly reward. The manual explains that sex (rape) with Christian and Jewish women captured in battle is permissible, as well as explicitly condones child rape: "It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn't reached puberty, if she is fit for intercourse." It seems that the only prohibition is having sex with (raping) a pregnant slave.

Nadia Murad Basee Taha, survivor of trafficking at the hands of ISIL and UNODC Goodwill Ambassador since 2016, has met with various Heads of State and global leaders to raise the plight of Yazidi victims of trafficking. In 2018 she was a corecipient, with Congolese physician Denis Mukwege, of the Nobel Prize for Peace. The enduring enslavement of Yazidi women and girls indicates ISIL' continued involvement in the trafficking of persons for purposes of inciting fear, generating revenue and sustaining its membership numbers.

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