Heather Cayless, M.A.


Since the early 1990’s there has been a growing international movement to combat human trafficking. Many nations see it, and its inextricable ties with organized crime, drug smuggling, and prostitutions, as a threat to national security and social stability. The growing emphasis on human rights has also brought this issue to the fore of the United Nations (U.N.) agenda. Today, the debate largely focuses on sex trafficking and the trafficking of women and children; however, with increased conflicts around the world and stricter refugee policies in receiving countries, human trafficking is a growing problem among vulnerable refugee populations.

The Word of God on Refuge and Refugees

“Refuge” in the Old Testament means a place of safety, a mountain fort, a place of escape, and a hiding place. The word has been translated as shelter, trust, hope, habitation, stronghold, etc. As a verb, it means: take refuge, seek refuge, find refuge, cover, flee for refuge, and also put trust in, hide, seek shelter, find safety, seek sanctuary, claim protection, etc. It is estimated that the most common form of the Hebrew word for refuge is used thirty-four times in the Book of Psalms. Chamberlain (1915) reports, “The AV appropriately translates the verb as ‘trust,’ which certainly is its underlying sense in the prayers of the Psalms.” Therefore, while the word “refuge” often connotes a place or places, the emphasis is on trust and protection.

Throughout the Bible there are references to cities of refuge. DeClaisse-Walford (1915) writes, “The cities of refuge were established for unintentional manslayers. To prevent the ‘avenger of blood’ from taking vengeance upon the accused before the nature of the homicide could be established, the Israelites were commanded to give every assistance to the fugitive in his flight to one of the designated cities… Roads to these cities were to be properly maintained and signposted, and the location of each city was such that none was more than one day’s journey from any point in the land of Israel (Dt. 19:3; v.6).” These arrangements were intended to ensure safety and justice to those in need.

Historically, the pioneering missionaries of the Church in South India, both national and cross-cultural, established cities of refuge for the Hindu converts wherein the recently converted individuals and families would have safety and protection.

The Word of God stands for safety, justice and protection of the helpless. Refugees flee their homes out of fear that their life is in jeopardy. Much like Hindu converts, and fugitives looking for justice, these people need assistance and protection. Our policy relating the refugees should be such that these helpless individuals are protected, cared for, and not exploited.


Clear definitions are essential to understanding the full scope of the problem and to developing a holistic solution. In the discussion of trafficking, the definition of refugee, asylum, migrant, smuggling, and trafficking in persons is essential.

A refugee, as defined by the U.N., “is a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his or her origin and is unwilling or…unable to return to it.”

Webster’s II Dictionary defines asylum as “Governmental protection granted to a foreign political refugee.”

Migrant is an individual or itinerant worker who moves from one country to another in search of work or residence.

“Smuggling of migrants shall mean the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident.”

“Trafficking in persons shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer and harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of giving or receiving payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”


The U.S. government estimates that there are approximately 600,000-800,000 people trafficked across national borders annually. Some officials estimate this number may be as high as 2,000,000. This does not include the millions of people who are trafficked within their own country. Victims of trafficking are sold or lured by perpetrators. Some are promised a better life, as is the case with many women in Eastern Europe. For men and women languishing in small villages, working mediocre jobs the hope of a better life in a big city entices them making them particularly vulnerable to perpetrators who are looking for cheap labor and sex slaves. In other cases, people, particularly children, are kidnapped or sold into trafficking by friends or family members.

Trafficking Among Refugee Populations in Iraq, Burma and North Korea

The level of vulnerability to trafficking increases with refugee populations. Many people have fled their home country due to conflict, civil unrest, religious persecution, political dissention, and ethnic tension. They arrive in a third county hoping for a better life, but unfortunately many find themselves trapped in refugee camps or in situations that are potentially worse than what they left.

Some Recent Examples

For example, Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, while they are not facing immanent death, are unable to get jobs and after 3 months their visa expires leaving them with no legal protections. In some cases, women have resorted to prostituting themselves just to make enough money to feed their children. Such circumstances also make them particularly vulnerable to traffickers and smugglers.

In their desperate need to flee yet another bad situation they turn to illegal, clandestine and dangerous means of travel, as is the case of a group of Iraqi Mandaeans in Indonesia. According to the Mandaean Human Rights Group, 30 Mandaeans were trafficked from Iraq presumably enroute to Australia. They were trapped in Indonesia for more than 5 years with no protection and no possible means of completing their journey. There is only one case which has not been resolved. There are 7 cases of Mandaeans who have been caught in Thailand. The Mandaean Society of America said that their papers and passports have been taken by their traffickers. These victims have no true documentation and are facing jail time. The lack of legal documentation has made it nearly impossible to assist these individuals. Their dire situation is a result of trafficking.

Burmese refugees living in Thailand are another example of the extreme vulnerability of refugees. In a report released by the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, the Burmese living in Thailand have no legal status and face unsafe living situations. Those living in refugee camps are not permitted to leave the camp, yet the income generating activities inside the camp are not sufficient; families cannot survive on such limited income. Therefore, many individuals clandestinely leave the camp to seek outside employment. Their lack of legal status and recourse, if they are exploited, leaves them vulnerable to harassment, exploitation, and trafficking. “After being trafficked, women and children may end up in a range of abusive situations, including forced prostitution, children forced to beg on the streets of Bangkok or other urban areas, young women working as domestic servants or entire families working in substandard and dangerous labor conditions in textile factories, fishing or other industrial settings.”

The North Korean regime of Kim Jong-Il forbids any travel outside the country. Citizens are not permitted to have passports; those who flee the oppression in North Korea, if caught and returned, face “indefinite terms of imprisonment and forced labor, confiscation of property, or death.” The current situation facing North Koreans is dire, there is rampant nation-wide famine and any perceived opposition to the regime will result in imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Citizens live in a constant state of fear. Despite the repercussions many citizens attempt to flee the country through China.

According to an article by Todd Bullock, between “80 percent and 90 percent of the refugees from North Korea, especially women and young children, end up as trafficking victims in China.” Todd goes on to note that, “Women and children are particularly vulnerable to traffickers in China because the Chinese government’s policy of detaining the refugees and sending them back to North Korea, where the penalty for returned refugees is often death, keeps them from going to the authorities.”

The situations facing refugees from Iraq, Burma, and North Korea are not isolated situations. Refugees around the world face similar situations and struggles. A lack of legal rights and protections in third countries, lack of employment opportunities, fear of repatriation, and a lack of legal means of travel makes refugees particularly vulnerable to trafficking. These factors must be addressed in creating a durable solution to trafficking amongst refugee populations.

Current Policies

While there are many political and social factors imposed on refugees from their sending or home countries, there are also a growing number of political and policy related factors from the receiving countries. John Morrison from Forced Migration Online wrote, “…the growth of trafficking and smuggling has, at least in part, been a response to the growth of political efforts to stop less organized forms of irregular migration.” Nations like the United States (U.S.) and the European Union (EU) have begun implementing stricter refugee and asylum policies and hence “smugglers provide a service in lieu of legal means or traffickers exploit the vulnerable.”

The Role of Western Democracies

Many refugees face the direst of circumstance, death, persecution etc. Often the circumstances in surrounding countries are not much better, as noted with the Burmese in Thailand, and the Iraqis in Syria and Jordan. These countries are not welcoming to refugees. Their policies continue to force ostracism, poverty, and persecution on these already vulnerable people.

Many refugees look to western countries as their only safe haven. Tragically, the growing number of protectionist laws, compel refugees look to smugglers and traffickers as their only means of entry. This often means that refugees and asylum seekers are denied protection and entry in a country like the U.S., due to their illegal entry and forged documentation.

UN Safeguards

In dealing specifically with the issue of trafficking, the U.N. has written several international laws and protocols developing a comprehensive ethic to combat trafficking particularly among women and children for the sale of prostitution, or forced slavery. Several nations have signed on to these laws and protocols, and have begun to implement them into their national system.

These laws include protection assistance to victims of trafficking, education, housing, counseling, etc. It also increases education among police officers, social service workers, and other officials to detect and rescue victims of trafficking. Increased surveillance at border stations, ports, as well as intercepting and monitoring trafficking routes all contribute to combating trafficking. Unfortunately, the problems facing trafficked refugees have not been addressed in these documents.

Policy Options for Refugees

Consider current policy options like a colander, or a coffee filter. The aim of refugee policies is to create a means by which nations are able to allow entry to those in need, with legitimate fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. It should also restrain those who do not fit into such a category or who are using refugee status as a guise to gain entry into a country. The current policies are no longer sufficient. They are like a broken colander or a coffee filter that is over flowing. Receiving countries, like the U.S., Europe, and Australia need to take a fresh look at their refugee policies, particularly with regards to those who are trafficked or smuggled into the country.

Due to their illegal entry, or undocumented status, many individuals face deportation, which may mean torture, imprisonment or death in their home country. To repatriate such individuals violates national commitments to International Law. Many refugees who have been trafficked entering the country clandestinely fear repatriation or reprisal and therefore never come forward. This continues to make them vulnerable to exploitation and extortion.

In creating a holistic policy, governments should partner with and utilize the assets of non-governmental organizations which can come along side the government and assist with the resettlement process, education, house, counseling, etc. Such groups can also assist with the collection of information regarding smuggling and trafficking routes, trafficking rings, and situations which compel refugees to flee. Understanding the cycle from persecution and poverty at home, to final resettlement in a host country is crucial to bring an end to trafficking.

Child Prostitution

The Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography summed up some of the common features of successful policies. These include: “political will; a sound base knowledge; an institutional presence; a multidisciplinary approach and coordination between different institutions; participation of children and families; outreach to the grass-roots level;… and adequate human and financial resources.” He also noted that “prevention policies cannot be implemented in isolation from those on protection, recovery and participation.” This will be especially crucial for those receiving countries. It is not sufficient to simply prevent trafficking from occurring or victims of trafficking from entering the country but rather a holistic approach must be taken.

A Holistic Approach to the Problem

A holistic approach would examine all aspects of the trafficking and refugee cycle, acknowledging the climate in the home country, the necessity of flight, the persecution and vulnerability facing refugees in third countries, and the need to protect vulnerable populations. Laws implemented must prosecute traffickers, while still protecting victims. In many developing countries laws against trafficking exist but they are not enforced or funded. For trafficking to be ended and refugee populations to be protected these laws and projects must receive appropriate funding.

In western countries, mechanisms for integrating trafficked or smuggled refugees into civil society must be further developed. Methods at the judicial level must be developed to determine the true level of persecution and the need for protection. In the U.S. this level of research is conducted by the U.S. State Department, they produce annual reports on Human Rights, Human Trafficking, and Religious Freedom. Document such as these are key in the judicial process.

The Impact on Refugees

On April 27, 2007, a North Korean defector spoke to a room full of Congressional staffers, and non-governmental organizations. She shared her story of escape from North Korea only to be repatriated by the Chinese government. Upon repatriation she was thrown into a North Korean labor camp where she suffered torture, physical and psychological abuse. She tried to commit suicide on numerous occasions, and witnessed the torturous death of several inmates.

This brave woman eventually escaped North Korea for a second time and safely found her way to South Korea. For many refugees clandestine escape and entry is the only means of survival. Current policies around the world continue to perpetuate their vulnerability rather than advocating for their protection, as seen in the case of the North Korean refugee. National governments, for the sake of national security, international stability, and social development, need to develop more holistic policies to meet these needs and protect such vulnerable populations.


Bullock, Todd. North Korean Refugees Frequent Victims of Human Trafficking. Retrieved on April 27, 2007 from http://usinfo.state.gov/gi/Archive/2005/Jul/21-838293.html.

Chamberlain, G. 1915. Refuge. In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (General Editor). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 4, p. 65. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. 1988. Originally published 1915.

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted by the United Nations on July 28, 1951. Retrieved on April 25, 2007 from http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/o_c_ref.htm.

DeClaisse-Walford, S. G. 1915. Cities of Refuge. In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (General Editor). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 4, pp. 66-67. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. 1988. Originally published 1915.

Division of International Protection Services. Proposals for an Executive Conclusion on the Protection of Victims of Trafficking Seeking Asylum. (January 2007) Retrieved on April 25, 2007 from http://www.unhcr.org/excom/EXCOM/45a753642.pdf.

Human Rights Council. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights aspect of the victims of trafficking in persons, especially women and children, Sigma Huda. (2006) A/HRC/4/23. Retrieved on April 25, 2007 from http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?m=137.

Morrison, John. (2002) Research Guide: Human Smuggling and Trafficking. Retrieved on April 26, 2007 from http://www.forcedmigration.org/guides/fmo011/fmo011.pdf.

Report submitted by Juan Miguel Petit, Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (E/CN.4/2004/9) Item 13.

Sabian Mandaeans in Iraq Face Annihilation. Report produced by the Mandaean Human Rights Group, January 2007, Retrieved on April 27, 2007 from http://www.mandaeanunion.org/HMRG/Sabian%20Mandaeans%20in%20Iraq%20Face%20Annihilation_2007%20MHRG%20report.pdf

Schlapkohl, Laura. Human Trafficking and the Common European Asylum System: Victim Protection and Assistance in the European Union. (The Fletcher School: Tufts University, 2006). Retrieved on April 25, 2007 from http://fletcher.tufts.edu/research/2006/SCHLAPKOHL.pdf

Young, Wendy and Sandee Pyne. Abuse without End: Burmese Refugee Women and Children at Risk of Trafficking. New York: Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, 2006.

U.S. Department of State: 2006 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Retrieved on April 29, 2007 from http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78777.htm.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Migration & Refugee Services: Human Trafficking. Retrieved on April 26, 2007 from http://www.usccb.org/mrs/traffickingweb.shtml.

U.S. Department of State. Facts about Human Trafficking. (2004). Retrieved on April 28, 2007 from http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/rls/33109.htm.

U.S. Department of State. Facts about Human Trafficking for Forced Labor (2005) Retrieved on April 28, 2007 from http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/fs/2005/50861.htm.

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Heather Cayless, M.A.
Bethany International

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