Migrants and Their Vulnerability to Human Trafficking, Modern Slavery and Forced Labour

What makes migrants vulnerable to human trafficking and associated forms of exploitation and abuse? A new study, undertaken by Minderoo Foundation’s Walk Free initiative and IOM, examines the connection between migration and modern slavery, and focuses on which migrants are most vulnerable, and in what circumstances, to modern slavery. The following is summary of that report.

Migrants are most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation in situations and places where the authority of the State and society is unable to protect them, either through lack of capacity, applicable laws or simple neglect. For example, migrants are highly vulnerable when fleeing situations of violence and conflict, where the State has effectively broken down and society itself is in crisis. Even once migrants have fled the immediate fighting, when people are on the move, this vulnerability persists while migrants are dislocated from community and family support structures and are thereby typically without access to legitimate forms of employment, legal status and social protection. The risk is further increased when migrants move or work through irregular channels, where their irregular status puts them entirely at the mercy of opportunists who may seek to take advantage of their desperate circumstances. Migrant workers are also vulnerable in certain labour situations that are either unseen, hard to access or simply not covered by existing legal protections. This includes situations that are “out of sight” such as migrant workers engaged in work at sea or even in private homes as domestic workers, but it can also include migrants who are effectively confined to worksites by private employers or agents who have a high degree of control over their ability to retain a visa, their working and living conditions, and their mobility.

Child and adolescent migrants are highly vulnerable to modern slavery. While an estimated 31 million children are migrants globally, legal routes of migration are typically closed to children. Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable when travelling alone or having been separated from their families. Discrimination and racism can result in some child migrants of certain national or ethnic origins being targeted more than other children and experiencing higher rates of victimization. Crimes against children tend to be underreported and research confirms child migrants face additional barriers to reporting, including fear of detention and deportation.

The issue of gender is relevant to vulnerability, with women experiencing higher rates of modern slavery in domestic work, the sex industry and forced marriage, while men are more likely to be exploited in state sponsored forced labour and forced labour in the construction and manufacturing sectors. All relevant studies agree that undocumented migrants are at a higher risk of modern slavery than those who are documented. Additionally, migrants whose visas are tied to a specific employer are also at higher risk of exploitation. The impact of migrants’ knowledge of migration processes is disputed. Some research suggests that poorly informed migrants are at higher risk of exploitation. However, other researchers argue that most migrants are already aware of the dangers of migrant exploitation but are compelled into risky situations by circumstances beyond their control.

Restrictive immigration policies (such as restrictions applied to certain visas or arbitrary changes to asylum procedures for nationals from certain countries) and weak migration governance structures are frequently noted as major causes of vulnerability to modern slavery, especially when combined with low-wage migration. In many contexts, migrant workers are excluded from or fall outside the protection of organized labour, where it exists. A climate of discrimination against migrants can be a major cause of their vulnerability to modern slavery. While sometimes discrimination may play out through tolerance of abuse, it can also mean migrants have limited access to legal and law enforcement systems that otherwise might protect them.

With limited access to networks, information or resources, migrants frequently need to look to third party sources of help. If verified information is not readily available through obvious, official channels, then local agents, intermediaries and employers will be able to leverage their superior control of resources to exploit migrant workers with relatively low cost and risk.

These include having superior access to information about migration processes and employment systems, local networks (particularly for potential employment), financial resources and control of space, including workplaces. The role of third-party intermediaries in the migration process is significant. Complex or piecemeal information on official migration processes, employment and relocation options, including job vacancies, skills and educational recognition, make it difficult for prospective migrant workers to migrate without third party assistance. As a result, migrants frequently use recruitment agencies, brokers, smugglers and other intermediaries, including extended networks through family and friends, to find overseas employment and facilitate their migration. Transactions with recruiters or recruitment agencies are one of the most common situations in which migrants are confronted with choices that lead to their exploitation. In many jurisdictions, these agencies are subject to minimal or inefficient regulation. Complex networks of subcontracting and cross jurisdictional challenges can obscure legal and financial responsibilities.

Research suggests that those involved in abusing migrants can be both opportunistic and predatory, seeking profit but also personal gratification. Perpetrators may not always view their behaviour as exploitative, as they may hold ideological beliefs that allow them to rationalize their exploitation of others. Examples include reference to concepts of free choice (“it’s their choice”) or a belief that perpetrators are providing a social good (“they are better off here”). Xenophobia and discrimination are also highly relevant to the mistreatment of migrants.

While there are laws, policies and practices that are intended to protect migrants from abuse and exploitation, there are many gaps in these mechanisms that leave large areas where people are entirely without protection. These gaps in protection are actively leveraged by unscrupulous recruiters, agents, employers and others to extract profit or other personal reward from vulnerable migrants. Even where formal systems exist, corruption, lack of oversight and the existence of well-entrenched “shadow systems” undermines protections.

Even when protective systems do exist, research confirms that modern slavery is a low priority for some legal and law enforcement systems, with higher priority (and consequently funding) given to immigration control. There are also considerable challenges with oversight and enforcement when the affected populations are essentially hidden, particularly when there are disincentives for victims to selfidentify such as the threat of criminalization for offences committed while exploited. Any lack of capacity to protect will be worsened in crisis situations, where formal controls break down, systems and infrastructure are stretched to the limit (including at borders and in countries of destination), and those who hold power may themselves be complicit in the abuse.

While there are myriad factors that contribute to vulnerability of certain migrants to human trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery, it is possible to identify salient patterns of risk.

These are the areas where our prevention efforts should focus:

  1. Increasing protections for victims and vulnerable migrants.
  2. Reducing the capacity and opportunity for potential offenders.
  3. Increasing capacity and focus of guardians and first responders.
  4. Focusing research efforts on filling critical gaps in knowledge.

Prevention efforts should focus on strategies to increase the safety of migrants in the locations and situations where high vulnerability coincides with opportunity for offending:
a. Ensure protection is provided universally for migrants escaping repressive States that subject their own citizens to forced labour.
b. Increase migrants’ access to information about the migration and recruitment processes.
c. Increase migrants’ access to legitimate sources of work and/or finance along migration pathways and in destination countries. d. Ensure that access to safe financial services, such as short term loans, and safe work or livelihoods programmes are part of responses to displacement. e. Address the threat of detention and/ or deportation that hangs over many migrant workers by creating systems and structures that enable temporary and even irregular migrants to access basic labour rights and justice, particularly around wage theft in both formal and informal sectors.
f. Eliminate gaps in labour protections for workers in informal sectors.
g. In destination and transit countries where children are on the move, ensure that local child protection systems are strengthened and supported to provide protection to migrant children.
h. Provide access to reasonable livelihoods for migrant parents and inclusive education support for all children regardless of migrant parents’ status.
i. Recognize and address the inherent potential for exploitation of children in crisis situations and take steps to ensure that children are safe even while fostered or being cared for through other informal childcare practices.

Prevention efforts should focus on strategies to reduce capacity and opportunity for offending: a. Redress the power imbalance between employers and employees by prohibiting recruitment fees, prohibiting restrictions on mobility and withholding of identity documents, and promoting labour rights, inspections and protections. This is particularly urgent in high-risk sectors such as the manufacturing, domestic work, construction and fishery sectors. b. Reduce perpetrators’ control of recruitment processes through more transparent regulation and system design while fostering innovative use of information technology and increased availability of free or low-cost information. c. Focus on the structures, policies and societal norms that enable discrimination to be perpetuated against migrants and other marginal populations.

Prevention efforts should focus on strategies to increase the capacity and focus of guardians such as law enforcement, labour inspectors and other potential first responders:
a. Close gaps in criminal laws by criminalizing forced marriage, all forms of human trafficking and forced labour, the use of child soldiers, and the buying and selling of children for sex.
b. Close gaps in protective responses and ensure all victims of these crimes, including migrants, men, women and children, are included in services and are able to access them.
c. Ensure that all migrant workers are protected by labour laws, including the right to collective bargaining.
d. Review immigration laws and policies to ensure they reflect the realities of labour market and migration pressures, but also to ensure a humane balance is struck between competing policy priorities, such as security and human rights of migrants.
e. Strengthen migration governance systems.
f. Ensure that corruption is investigated, exposed and prosecuted.
g. In crisis situations, anticipate the risk of human trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery. Bolster the capacity of governments, humanitarian workers and partners in these situations. Actively develop protective systems to identify and assist at-risk populations both during crisis and in protracted or post-crisis settings, including in neighbouring countries and areas of return.
h. Fund rapid response task-forces and provide them with the flexibility to respond to emerging threats.
i. Provide training and support to first responders, including creating specialized law enforcement capabilities, and pursue labour inspections in the informal sector to detect instances of modern slavery.
j. Encourage transparency of efforts through support for research and reporting on the operation and effectiveness of existing responses.
k. Focus on rehabilitation that includes a financial or livelihoods components to prevent re-victimization of people who have exited exploitative situations.

Effective responses to modern slavery depend on the availability of relevant, reliable data to help understand the problem and its solutions. Research is needed to fill gaps in knowledge, particularly on:
a. Offenders, most notably the methods, backgrounds and motivations of modern slavery’s perpetrators and the development of a better typology of perpetrators in various types of modern slavery.
b. Age and gender and their impacts on vulnerability to modern slavery.
c. Understudied topics, such as forced marriage and its connections to migration, as well as recruitment of child soldiers from migrant and displaced populations.
d. Understudied regions and countries, where high prevalence is indicated but there is limited research on the connection to migration and vulnerability to modern slavery specifically, such as the Caribbean, Oceania (notably the Pacific Island Nations), Southern Africa, Middle Africa, Eastern Asia, the Russian Federation, Central Asian Republics, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Somalia, Burundi and Mauritania.
e. Protective factors, such as how cultural norms and diasporas can be better leveraged to provide protection for migrants and counter the misinformation and exploitative networks that benefit offenders.

Publication authors: Fiona David, Katharine Bryant and Jacqueline Joudo Larsen
The Report Publisher: International Organization for Migration – www.iom.int

The opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

To read the full report go to: https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/migrants_and_their_vulnerability.pdf

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