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Human Trafficking Center

How a Bad Economy Can Increase Human Trafficking: The Case of Madagascar


Jul 2016



By Seth Daire, Research Assistant

The international approach to ending human trafficking is highly centered around law enforcement. While an essential component, focusing solely on law enforcement efforts can divert attention from other important factors, such as economic vulnerability.  Such was the case in Madagascar, where international economic factors led to an increase in trafficking of persons out of the country.

A 2006 Report on the Textile Industry noted that Madagascar’s economy is “extremely vulnerable to external shocks from the international economy.” In 2009, such an economic shock made textile workers vulnerable which led to increased human trafficking. While governance issues in Madagascar laid the foundation, the international community implementing sanctions that cut off aid and trade to the country instigated an economic crisis.

Madagascar’s Textile Industry

The textile industry was one of Madagascar’s most competitive industries until it declined in the 1990s. To attain development objectives, the government started promoting Export Processing Zones (EPZs) in 1995, as united production costs were among the lowest in the world in Madagascar. Labor standards and low wages are concerns with EPZs, but household data indicated a small reduction in poverty, despite lower than average wages.

Madagascar’s textile industry grew from 45 million USD in 1990 to over 460 million USD in 2001, making it one of the fastest growing industries in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is in large part due to trade agreements giving Madagascar quota and duty free access to EU (EBA and Cotonou) and US markets (AGOA). Madagascar joined the African Growth and Opportunity Act in 2000 and gained textile export access to the US in 2001. Between 2004 and 2008, over 80 percent of all exports were clothing and apparel.

A Coup and Sanctions

A military coup in 2009 by Andry Rajoelina led donor countries to cut back aid and trade agreements as sanctions were imposed. With official aid accounting for 40 percent of the government budget, public expenditures were cut in half. With EPZ textiles being the majority of exports, over 50,000 AGOA-related jobs were lost, which accounted for about 25 percent of the formal economy. Women, many of whom were unskilled laborers from rural areas, had accounted for 70 percent of the EPZ labor force.

Malagasy Women Trafficked

In 2014, The Nation published an expose entitled, “Why Are Thousands of Malagasy Women Being Trafficked to Abusive Jobs in the Middle East?” The expose detailed the plight of Malagasy women after 2009, who account for 90 percent of the migrant labor force who seek work outside Madagascar. Labor brokers aggressively pursued and promised women high wages as domestic servants in places like Lebanon and Kuwait.

These economic migrants choose to take a risk in hope of bettering their life, often going into debt to do so. The president of the Union of Qualified Domestic Workers estimated that 200 people per week have left Madagascar to work in the Middle East annually since 2009. There are many in that number who ended up in trafficking situations where they were abused physically, psychologically and/or sexually in situations where their bosses disregard the contract and exert absolute control over their employees. Men also migrate to work abroad, with some forced into labor in the service and construction sectors in the Middle East.

Governments and Policy

Certainly the government of Madagascar’s poor governance and lack of investment contributed greatly to their economic crisis. However, the US Embassy in Madagascar told the US Department of State and Commerce that if AGOA were suspended, “No amount of public diplomacy would succeed in explaining why our concerns for democracy here outweighed consideration for the well-being of hundreds of thousands of poor Malagasy citizens.”

No doubt politicians have hard choices to make regarding democracy promotion and international security. Also, as some economists pointed out, the factors of production may have been misallocated and inefficient within the economy prior to the suspension. However, we need to remember that there is a human cost to policy decisions that force people to shift locations and jobs.

Economic Recovery

Exports have grown since 2011 such that total exports to the US are approaching 2009 levels despite the $150 million decline in textiles, mostly due to extractive industries like mining. By 2014, the government of Madagascar had banned official migration to high risks countries, like those in the Middle East, but unofficial migration is quickly filling that gap.

With a newly elected president in Madagascar, the US has since reinstated the AGOA trade agreement, which is already having a positive economic impact that is expected to lead to between 80,000 and 200,000 jobs. Human trafficking from Madagascar to the Middle East is still occurring because low skill workers are still economically vulnerable to labor brokers, despite improvements in governance and prosecution of traffickers.

Lessons to be Learned 

If we want to end human trafficking, we need to pay more attention to the impact of economic policy on the people who are least able to adjust to it. When jobs disappear, people who depended on those jobs may not be able to quickly find other sources of income. Labor brokers use this opportunity to offer jobs in other countries and may lie about the terms of employment and the cost involved to migrate, which then puts migrants in conditions of forced labor. Vulnerable populations need better jobs and better support systems if we are to end human trafficking.

Photo credit: terimakasih0 via

About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.

2 Responses to “How a Bad Economy Can Increase Human Trafficking: The Case of Madagascar”

  1. Seth Daire

    Yes, official migration does occur through transit countries. The following is from the 2016 TIP Report, “It is estimated that thousands of Malagasy women are employed as domestic workers in Lebanon, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia; these women circumvent a 2013 ban on work in Gulf countries by transiting Mauritius, Kenya, Comoros, and South Africa.” Thanks for the comment and question SVHT.

  2. Save Victims of Human Trafficking

    Rather than just speaking in terms of a simplistic comparison between economic realities between their nations of origin versus the locations they are moved to, it’s good to see a study focused solely on deteriorating economic conditions of victims’ home countries. Vulnerable people and worsening employment opportunities create fertile grounds for traffickers and other opportunists seeking to manipulate people desperate for employment. While Madagascar’s Government has banned travel to high risk countries, you’ve noted that unofficial travelling is still occurring – does that include travelling from a lower risk country from Madagascar and then at a later date, being moved to a high risk country?
    – SVOHT

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