The San Antonio Tragedy Was Sadly Not Uncommon

Human trafficking thrives in times of instability, crisis, and chaos. The reported deaths of at least 53 people inside an abandoned truck near San Antonio, Texas, on June 28 highlights the devasting consequences of smuggling and trafficking that impact migrants, their families, first responders, and communities.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the current exodus of more than seven million people fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine—almost 90 percent of them women and children—has created fertile conditions for the exploitation of the most vulnerable. There have already been reports of the exploitation of Ukrainians in the labor market and attempts by traffickers to lure potential victims on social media. These crises come after Covid-19 already exacerbated the poverty, insecurity, and marginalization that can drive human trafficking.

States have long recognized the dangers of human trafficking, and there is widespread national, regional, and global consensus on the critical need to prevent and combat it. Few other migration-related issues garner as much international agreement. But in practice, there remains a gap in the implementation of effective responses, with the intersection between human trafficking and migration complicating efforts to combat this scourge.

Migrants (including refugees) are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, especially if they are forced to choose unsafe, disorderly, and irregular migration routes where there is little protection or support. Yet while enhancing safe and legal pathways for migration is one of the most effective steps governments can take to eradicate illegal activity and offer protection to those most at risk, analysis shows that international mobility has narrowed over time, resulting in growing mobility inequality.

Often, victims of trafficking can find themselves stigmatized and marginalized. Many are without regular status, making them reluctant to cooperate in investigations for fear of deportation. Their rights are not always upheld because of institutionalized negative stereotypes of migrants, with some detained and prosecuted. A study conducted in the United States found trafficking victims reported that stigma related to prosecution had long-term impacts, with difficulties accessing employment, housing, credit, or educational loans. Among its recommendations to the authorities, victims have called for non-punishment of their trafficking offenses and the cleansing of their criminal history.

Smuggling is Bad—Trafficking is Worse

Media and policymakers also frequently mix up human trafficking and migrant smuggling—a key difference being that trafficking involves deception or coercion, whereas smuggling is typically consensual. This imprecision can be by mistake, but also by design, raising the risk that countertrafficking is leveraged as political currency to confront irregular migration. It also complicates preventative measures. Many initiatives to combat trafficking have focused on public awareness campaigns in countries of origin, and reliable information about the risks is essential. However, these campaigns are often viewed with suspicion and are ineffective if they are perceived to be about deterring migration rather than protecting people. In some cases, what starts out as smuggling can turn into trafficking as the coercion and exploitation of the victims increases during the process. The recent case in Texas may appear to be smuggling, but investigators have indicated trafficking for exploitation may be involved.

Importantly, the conditions in which people find themselves can increase the risk of being trafficked. The response to the war in Ukraine, for example, has in some respects brought some important changes in policy terms, with the European Union enacting its Temporary Protection Directive, giving people fleeing the war the legal right to live, work, and move freely between EU nations. But there remain huge logistical challenges as Europe faces its biggest refugee movement since the Second World War, with many Ukrainians struggling to access safe and stable housing and employment, creating opportunities for exploitation.

Combating Trafficking

This makes it more important than ever that states redouble their efforts and seek out innovative ways to combat trafficking. One promising avenue is private sector partnerships. Financial actors, for example, can play a key role in identifying the disrupting illicit gains of traffickers. The 2022 World Migration Report shows that providing clear guidance to financial institutions on reporting suspicions of slavery and human trafficking has at times resulted in an increase of up to 1,000 percent of reported suspected cases. Evidence gathered from the finance sector is also crucial in avoiding overreliance on victims’ testimony during prosecution.

Pushing for greater accountability of businesses in the field of human rights is another potential area for improvement and innovation, with companies being increasingly influenced by corporate responsibility interests and supply chain sustainability. Consumer movement toward ethical consumption has improved trafficking prevention by enhancing the focus on accountability of the private sector.

Private sector involvement does, however, come with risks. High data protection standards should be adhered to, as victims of trafficking are a particularly sensitive population because there are potentially severe consequences should a victim be identified in a data set. And partnerships with the private sector should not deflect from the central responsibility of state authorities to take action to combat human trafficking and ensure that human rights are at the center of these efforts.

The upcoming United Nations World Day against Trafficking in Persons on July 30 provides an opportunity to further highlight the key human rights issues involved as well as some of the innovative solutions to eradicating this profoundly destructive crime.

But a shift in the perception of all migrants is also crucial. Only by recognizing and realizing the benefits and potential of migration and providing well-managed and well-governed approaches to mobility can institutions truly start to address the vulnerabilities that the traffickers like those involved in the San Antonio tragedy are so adept at exploiting.

Marie McAuliffe is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Project on Fragility and Mobility at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the head of migration research at the International Organization for Migration. Céline Bauloz is senior migration research officer at the International Organization for Migration.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Marie McAuliffe
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Project on Fragility and Mobility

Céline Bauloz

Senior Migration Research Officer, International Organization for Migration (IOM)