Human Trafficking

Human trafficking and contemporary forms of slavery affect an estimated 27 million people per year and constitute one of the most complex and growing threats to fundamental human rights, integrity, and the health of men, women, and children worldwide. Trafficking is driven by gender inequalities, social exclusion, the absence of equal opportunity and prospects for employment, stark intra and inter-State economic disparities, and corruption. The highest level of vulnerability to human trafficking is found in countries and regions exposed to continued political instability and a lack of resources, undermining the capacity of public authorities to prevent the activities of criminal networks preying on poor families and communities.

Natural disasters and armed conflicts are primary environments for this illicit trade, raising the need for a cogent international response to human trafficking in complex emergencies. Interestingly, humanitarian organizations have had only limited engagement on human trafficking. This issue is perceived as belonging to a law enforcement and crime prevention agenda under the mandates of development and peace-building agencies, to be implemented in the context of the reestablishment of a functional legal and social order. Yet, the increase of human trafficking activities emanating from complex emergencies such as in Haiti, Sudan, Somalia, or Afghanistan over the last decade makes it a priority. Therefore, international agencies and NGOs are bound to engage on the prevention of this illegal trade, calling for a clear, sustainable, international humanitarian response to human trafficking. Such a response will require proper strategies, as well as concrete tools and mechanisms for early warning and emergency response, so as to build the capacity of international agencies and NGOs to address this phenomenon in situations of armed conflict and natural disaster.

The Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) at the Harvard School of Public Health is undertaking the necessary policy research to support the development of such mechanisms in partnership with key UN agencies and other international stakeholders. This research will contribute to producing training materials and stimulating engagement in the professional development of leaders and senior professionals from UN agencies, the Red Cross Movements, and humanitarian NGOs on the importance of the humanitarian response to human trafficking. Based on these activities, HPCR hopes to mobilize the attention and participation of the academic community at Harvard and beyond on the dramatic impact of this trade of populations already victimized by armed violence and natural disasters.

The Project on the Humanitarian Response to Human Trafficking at HPCR is based on a partnership between the Program at Harvard and the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) based in Vienna. Under this partnership, a series of consultations with the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have taken place to set plans for building the international response to human trafficking in complex emergencies. The core goal of this policy research project is to assess strategies for improving local and international responses to human trafficking in complex emergencies and to support public and private sectors’ planning and programming activities in addressing this issue.