Human Trafficking, Refugees and Displaced Persons: What Terms to Use

December 02, 2015 Caleb Benadum Opinion 
Forced Labor, Sex Trafficking, Domestic Servitude, Forced Marriage, Awareness, News

Police guard inside the fence - Refugee Rights Protest at Broadmeadows, Melbourne © Takver Flickr

In the last nine months, the press has put some miles on the word “refugee.” They’ve used the word to describe people fleeing the Syrian civil war, people who are internally displaced and the boat people of Myanmar. Many would not hesitate to use the word refugee to refer to any person fleeing their home country. As Anne P. Wilson of Lutheran Refugee and Immigration Services notes, there is both a common understanding and a legal understanding of the word “refugee.” Unfortunately, that distinction can cause trouble, and we have a timely example of how the United States House of Representatives recently passed a measure that would require certain “vetting” processes prior to the country accepting the 10,000 refugees it had previously promised to take. The vote was preceded by a social media hailstorm of liberals and conservatives arguing for compassion or security, respectively. The distinction between the legal definition of the word and its common usage is a major feature of that ongoing debate.

The distinction lies between the definition of a refugee and that of a displaced person generally. While that distinction may seem small, it has important implications for our view of the migrant crisis. The distinction can help us as antislavery activists to understand specific vulnerabilities associated with migration and how to better combat human trafficking in this context. Hopefully I can help clarify these terms. I will define what a refugee is, differentiate a refugee from a displaced person and then show how both populations are vulnerable to human trafficking.

What is a Refugee? 

A refugee is a person legally determined to fit the definition found in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The Refugee Convention states a person is a refugee when he or she is unwilling or unable to return to his or her country of origin “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion….” A primary goal of Refugee law is the principle of non-refoulement, or that the international community is more or less obligated to make sure that the refugee is not returned to their country of origin, in which they fear persecution, unless they decide to be voluntarily repatriated. Legally speaking, a refugee determination can be made in two ways: by the UNHCR while in transit or in a camp, or through a localized asylum process.Asylum is the process by which a person enters a country and then asks for asylum from the government, i.e. to be treated as a refugee.

The reason this definition remains important is because it refers to a specific group of people that have gone through a specific process. As this handy White House infographic shows, refugees have to supply relevant data, are physically examined and are interviewed multiple times by UNHCR staff. Less than 1% of the refugee population will then qualify for resettlement. Then, each country has a separate process for refugee intake, including further security checks, prior to their actual resettlement. It takes on average between 18 to 24 months and can take much longer. The recent political debate focused on the security of welcoming refugees, yet immigration advocates and lawyers responded that entering the United States via a refugee determination is incredibly difficult. In fact, it is far easier to come to the United States as a tourist or with a student visa. 

What is a displaced person?

A displaced person is similar to a refugee. He or she is fleeing his or her home in order to avoid something. However, they may be fleeing for reasons other than the five enumerated bases of the Refugee Convention (race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion), or they may be displaced within their own country’s borders. If you include internally and externally displaced people, 51.2 million people were displaced by the end of 2013 and 59.5 million by the beginning of 2015. There are approximately 21.3 million refugees and asylum seekers in the world. Therefore, the vast majority of displaced people fall into this general category of displaced persons and are not legally refugees.

While this distinction is important, it should not take away from the terror and pain of displaced people. Some believe this distinction shows that our refugee law is outdated. Nevertheless, the distinction is important. It is important because of the way it could inform our political rhetoric and opinion but also because of how it plays into our understanding of vulnerable conditions and exploitative opportunities. Human traffickers prey on those who are weak and vulnerable.


© Garrett Ziegler “Nyakabande Refugee Camp”

What does this have to do with human trafficking? 

Human traffickers know who they can and cannot target. Although some stories of outright abduction are true, often human traffickers provide schemes that lure in desperate people in desperate situations. A common example of this kind of scheme is a job advertisement for a foreign country that turns out to be false or deliberately misleading. Refugees, asylum-seekers and displaced people are in desperate situations and may be more likely to take chances and risks in order to find employment or to get to a different country.

This can take different forms. Refugees often find themselves in camps while they await refugee status and resettlement. Refugees can face deplorable conditions in camps, including the lack of sanitation facilities or adequate medical treatment.  NGOs have found cases of child soldiers being recruited or kidnapped from refugee camps, young girls being sold out of camps and refugees accepting employment in other places through camp recruiters. The UNHCR includes in the materials it passes out brochures and documents detailing the dangers of human trafficking, but this may or may not reduce the risk.

The journey is often more dangerous than the camps. This is why many displaced people and would-be refugees fall prey to human trafficking schemes. While something may begin as human smuggling—paying a person to move you or your family across a border—it can sometimes end in human trafficking. Some smugglers have used debts incurred during transit as a way to enslave people, others have utilized brute force. Displaced people, both internally and externally, often face dire poverty. People in poverty, and without adequate community or family networks, are vulnerable to human trafficking and susceptible to human trafficking snares and schemes.

We are the most effective as anti-human trafficking activists when we understand the underlying issues that cause human trafficking. We face a dangerous world, where millions of people in vulnerable situations are exploited. We need to be able to communicate how the refugee and migrant crises relate to human trafficking, why it concerns us and what we can do about it. 

Topics: Forced Labor, Sex Trafficking, Domestic Servitude, Forced Marriage, Awareness, News

About the Author

Caleb Benadum

Caleb Benadum was previously the Program Manager for the Trafficking in Persons Report Global Heroes Network. He graduated from Capital University with a degree in Philosophy, and the University of Cincinnati Law School with a Juris Doctor degree. Having spent much of his life overseas, he is committed to modern-day abolitionism and the promotion of human rights around the world.