Human Trafficking

UNHCR has a particular role to play in relation to:

  • preventing asylum-seekers, refugees, other persons in need of international protection, internally displaced and stateless people from becoming victims of trafficking, and addressing the protection and assistance needs of those who do;
  • ensuring that potential international protection needs of victims of trafficking are properly identified and that they are afforded corresponding rights; and
  • assisting States in ensuring that trafficking victims who are without identity documents are able to establish their nationality status in order to prevent them from being rendered stateless.

UNHCR works in close partnership with several organizations – including UNODC, UNICEF, OHCHR, UNFPA, ILO and IOM – in order to achieve these objectives, as well as to develop joint global initiatives to address trafficking in persons at large. Several areas of joint work are featured below.

Trafficking in Persons and Refugee Status

Persons who have been trafficked across an international border, in transit or at destination, may be in need of international protection as refugees on the basis of this experience. Ensuring protection against their refoulement and access to procedures that can determine their refugee status is therefore critical.

While not all victims of trafficking are refugees, depending on the circumstances, some victims of trafficking qualify for refugee status. UNHCR’s Guidelines on International Protection No. 7 set out when the 1951 Convention refugee definition applies to victims of trafficking and persons at risk of being trafficked.

Among other activities, UNHCR supports the capacity of national decision makers to draw the link between a person’s trafficking experience and their need for international protection. UNHCR also provides support to the developing national legal frameworks on trafficking in persons, national strategies and national referral mechanisms (NRMs) for victims of trafficking to ensure that they are asylum-sensitive and utilize a victim-centred, rights-based approach. For more information on these mechanisms, see the OSCE-ODIHR Handbook on NRMs (update forthcoming).

Trafficking in Persons in Conflict

UN Security Council Resolutions 2331 (2016) and 2388 (2017) task UNHCR and the international community to work together to address trafficking in conflict, in particular, as it relates to the activities of terrorist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram.

UNHCR is actively involved in enhancing State capacity to identify and protect victims of trafficking from among persons falling under its mandate and who have fled situations of armed conflict and violence. UNHCR’s Guidelines on International Protection No. 12 provide guidance on claims for refugee status related to situations of armed conflict and violence, and UNHCR’s Guidelines on International Protection No. 1, on the needs of persons fleeing gender-related persecution, further explains that trafficking in persons, sexual slavery and conjugal slavery/forced marriage, are common forms of persecution in many situations of armed conflict and violence.

Among other initiatives, with IOM and Heartland Alliance, UNHCR co-leads the Task Team on Anti-Trafficking to the Global Protection Cluster which will produce global guidance on practical measures needed to address trafficking in persons through the cluster response.

Trafficking in Persons and Gender

Unequal gender norms and sexual and gender-based violence can create circumstances that may result in trafficking in persons. Male and female victims of trafficking alike may be exposed to many kinds of sexual violence during their trafficking experience – whatever the type of exploitation they endure. It affects victims of forced labour, forced begging and domestic servitude as well as victims of commercial sexual exploitation and forced marriage.

UNHCR has developed an online facilitator’s guide as part of a comprehensive training on sexual and gender-based violence prevention and response that explores the links between trafficking, smuggling, gender, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced displacement. It includes case studies and provides recommendations on how to mitigate against the risk that a man, woman, girl or boy may become a victim of trafficking on account of their gender or prior experience of gender-based violence.

See also the ICAT Issue Brief #4 – The Gender Dimension of Human Trafficking.

International and Regional Cooperation

The Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking (ICAT) is a policy forum mandated by the General Assembly to improve international cooperation and coherence in approaches to trafficking in persons. As an active member of the ICAT working group, UNHCR has contributed expertise to a number of policy papers and short issue briefs – such as the issue brief on Trafficking in Persons and Refugee Status. Other resources, including the ICAT Toolkit on Evaluating Counter Trafficking Programs can be found on the ICAT website.

UNHCR also engages with regional organizations on trafficking in persons, such as ECOWAS, IGAD, the African Union, the League of Arab States and the Council of Europe, including its Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA). See for example, Protecting Refugees and Other Persons on the Move in the ECOWAS Space and UNHCR’s comments on the proposal for a Directive on Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings. As a member of the OSCE Alliance against Trafficking, UNHCR has played a key role in the design and facilitation of the OSCE Live Simulation Trainings on Combatting Human Trafficking along Migration Routes. UNHCR is also a member of many regional consultative processes where trafficking in persons, forced displacement and migration are discussed including the Bali Process, Khartoum Process, Prague Process and Rabat Process

Trafficking in Persons and the New York Declaration

In the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, Member States committed to "vigorously combat human trafficking and migrant smuggling with a view to their elimination, including through targeted measures to identify victims of human trafficking or those at risk of trafficking", to "provide support for the victims of human trafficking" and "to prevent human trafficking among those affected by displacement" (para. 35).

Through its inputs to the Global Migration Group Issue Brief to Thematic Session 5 and statement delivered during Panel 3 on Smuggling of Migrants and Trafficking in Persons, UNHCR has contributed to a possible framing of the issue and provided key recommendations for the global, compact for safe, orderly and regular migration.

Good Practices

The 10-Point Plan in Action (2016) contains good practice examples of measures used to identify and respond to trafficking in persons in mixed migration settings. See in particular chapters 5 (Mechanisms for Screening and Referral) and 6 (Differentiated Processes and Procedures).

In 2009 UNHCR and IOM published a Guiding Framework on Developing Standard Operating Procedures for the Identification and Protection of Victims of Trafficking that has enhanced referrals and cooperation between the two agencies on trafficking in persons. An update of this framework is forthcoming.

In response to the trafficking of thousands of refugees in the Sinai Peninsula, in 2012 UNHCR launched a Strategy and Regional Plan of Action: Smuggling and Trafficking from the East and Horn of Africa. The strategy led to the development of counter-trafficking projects and activities across the region, including a joint UNHCR, IOM and Government strategy on addressing trafficking, kidnapping and smuggling of persons in Sudan. See the 2014 strategy progress report to the 2012 Strategy and Regional Plan of Action here.

UNHCR Guidelines on International Protection No.1

Gender-Related Persecution within the context of Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees

UNHCR Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls

This Handbook describes some of the protection challenges faced by women and girls of concern to UNHCR and outlines various strategies to be adopted with partners to tackle these challenges.
First edition, published January 2008

UNHCR Guidelines on International Protection No.2

Membership of a particular social group within the context of Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol

Handbook for the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons

This handbook aims to provide legal and operational guidance to human rights, humanitarian and development actors involved in protection efforts on behalf of internally displaced people and other affected populations in complex emergencies.

ICAT website

The new Inter-Agency Coordination Group Against Trafficking in Persons website is now online. Search it for new publications, policy statements and inter-agency developments in the field of trafficking in persons

Trafficking in Persons page on Refworld – external link

Includes policy documents, guidelines and tools relevant to trafficking in human beings and international protection, case law, selected international and regional legal instruments, as well as non-treaty instruments, tools and resources documents.