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Racism and xenophobia put human rights of human trafficking victims at risk – UN expert

World Day Against Trafficking in Persons 30 July 2021

GENEVA (29 July 2021) — A deadly combination of racism, xenophobia and gender-based discrimination means victims of human trafficking are not getting the protection they deserve, and traffickers are able to carry out their illegal trade with impunity, the UN’s expert on human trafficking said today.

“Instead of being identified as victims of a serious human rights violation, victims are being arrested, detained, denied assistance and protection and even forcibly returned to countries of origin because of racial profiling and discrimination at border crossings and in criminal justice systems,” said Siobhán Mullally, UN special rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children.

“Urgent action is needed by all actors including the private sector, to combat racism and xenophobia in law enforcement, at borders, education systems, in work places, in child protection systems, and in humanitarian and peace operations,” she said ahead of International World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on July 30.

She said racism, xenophobia, and discrimination against minority groups and indigenous peoples are root causes of human trafficking in persons and lead to egregious failures of protection. Children are particularly failing to get the protection that would be in their best interest.

“The cycle of trafficking, exploitation and re-trafficking continues with impunity,” she said. “Rather than being protected and assisted without discrimination as children at risk, child victims of trafficking are treated as irregular migrants or subjected to criminal prosecutions, and have their age and credibility questioned.”

When gender discrimination intersects with racism and xenophobia, victims suffer even more.

“Actions to combat trafficking must move beyond harmful stereotypes of ‘ideal victims’ that leave many victims and survivors without the protection and assistance they are entitled to,” Mullally said. “Racial justice is critical to ensuring that we break the cycles of violence, exclusion and exploitation that lead to trafficking in persons.”

Racist stereotyping and xenophobia limit the impact of prevention measures, and lead to failures of identification. “Too often the testimonies of victims are questioned and the harms and trauma they have endured are denied. Failure to identify victims of trafficking lead to forced returns, arrest, detention and prosecution, family separation, and refusals of consular assistance, rather than protection and assistance,” she said. For these reasons, it is essential that anti-trafficking movements work together with racial justice movements.

The prohibition against racial discrimination is absolute in international law and permits no exceptions, in accordance with the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Mullally reminded countries that they have obligations in international human rights law to eliminate direct, indirect and structural discrimination, and that Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) General Recommendation No. 38 of last year reiterates the obligation of States to ensure its application to all victims without exception.

“Unless states take effective action to combat discrimination, racism and xenophobia, traffickers will continue to target minority communities, indigenous peoples, stateless persons, migrants and refugees, with impunity,” she warned.

It is also vital to involve trafficking survivors and human rights defenders who work for their rights in measures to prevent trafficking and protect fellow survivors and help them recover from their traumatic experiences.

“The voices of all survivors and victims of trafficking should be brought to the fore without discrimination or exception,” said Mullally. “Empowerment of all survivors of trafficking in persons is critical to ensuring that the human rights of all victims of human trafficking are fulfilled without discrimination and as a matter of urgency.”

Her statement was endorsed by:  Mr. Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; Ms. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Ms. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while counter-terrorism; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Ms. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Mr. Fernand de Varennes,Special Rapporteur on minority issues; Ms. Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons; Ms. Koumbou Boly Barry, Special Rapporteur on the right to education; Mr. Surya Deva (Chairperson), Ms. Elżbieta Karska (Vice-Chairperson), Mr. Githu Muigai, Mr. Dante Pesce, and Ms. Anita Ramasastry, the Working Group on Business and Human Rights.


* The expert:Ms. Siobhán Mullally, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, was appointed as Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children by the UN Human Rights Council in July 2020, to promote the prevention of trafficking in persons in all its forms, and to encourage measures to uphold and protect the human rights of victims. She is also the Established Professor of Human Rights Law and Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the School of Law, National University of Ireland, Galway. Prior to her appointment as Special Rapporteur, she was a member of the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), elected as President of GRETA from 2016-2018 and as 1st Vice-President from 2014-2018.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Vanessa Asensio (vasensioperez@ohchr.org).

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (41 22 928 9855 / rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org)

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