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Human Trafficking Center

The Inherent Hypocrisy of Claiming to Combat Human Trafficking While Closing Borders


May 2017



By Jocelyn Iverson, Director of Communications and Social Media

Nobody wants to sound “pro-human trafficking.”  Countries jockey for more favorable tier rankings in the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report.  Organizations make it their mission to “rescue” victims from their unsavory conditions.  The criminal justice system works to capture and punish perpetrators of this heinous crime. While there is nothing wrong with such efforts, they often fail to effectively address many of the root causes of human trafficking, such as socioeconomic conditions and migration issues.

Failing to See the Connection

It is a particularly relevant time to examine how immigration policies are affecting vulnerabilities to human trafficking. U.S. President Donald Trump has now attempted two temporary travel bans on individuals from Muslim-majority nations, and a permanent ban on Syrian nationals, including those with vetted refugee status. On the other side of the pond, the European Union came to a highly problematic agreement with Turkey to return migrants who manage to reach Greek shores, in an attempt to keep the refugee crisis at a distance. By failing to address how these policies have an immediate impact on human trafficking, the supposed “leaders of the free world” are surrounding themselves in both a hypothetical and literal sea of hypocrisy.

The EU-Turkey Deal

Turkey is overburdened with refugees and asylum seekers. There are currently 2.9 million Syrians in the country, and over 290,000 asylum seekers and refugees from other countries. The government stated in February of 2016 that it had reached its limit, and was struggling to provide economic and educational opportunities for those who were already there. As a result, a new deal was reached in which anyone who crossed over from Turkey to Greece via the Mediterranean would automatically be returned to Turkey, but for every one returned person an already vetted refugee would be accepted by the EU.  

This agreement is arguably problematic for a number of reasons. For example, non-European refugees and forced migrants living in Turkey are unable to obtain permanent citizenship, are often unable to find legal employment opportunities, and thus are subject to poor living conditions and exploitation by employers. The legal and situational context within Turkey makes this population highly vulnerable to child marriage, sexual exploitation and labor abuses. These problems are only exasperated by the fact that the government prefers to handle such matters on its own, and is increasingly suspicious of outside actors, which makes international monitoring and aid all the more difficult.  

Rigid Borders and Restrictive Policies

The EU-Turkey deal and the increasing closures of borders both within the EU and of Turkey itself has made those fleeing the horrors in Syria all the more likely to turn to illegal channels for escape. At the end of 2016, Turkey announced a plan to build a wall along its border with Syria, and it has stepped up its border protection, even to the point of firing on those who attempt to cross the border illegally. These actions are partially a response to recent terror attacks on Turkish soil and resultant security concerns, leading to a more protectionist stance.  

The Turkish government has supported a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border as a solution, and more recently European leaders and the U.S. President have agreed, mostly as a way to stem the refugee flow. However, such safe zones are rife with hazards, and may even be seen as a violation of international law. Without the option to cross legally into Turkey and other neighboring countries, Syrians facing destruction and persecution are forced to turn to smugglers, who are highly likely to exploit their precarious situation.

President Trump’s attempts to ban the entry of Muslims from the region only increases the burden already being shouldered by Turkey, an important American ally. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus initially called the action offensive, claimed it was motivated by Islamophobia, and called on Trump to reconsider the move. By refusing to accept refugees into a country with more opportunity than Turkey is able to offer, the President is increasing the likelihood that these individuals will end up in situations of exploitation and abuse. The U.S. has already taken less than its fair share of refugees for resettlement from Turkey, and has been accused of cherry-picking those it does accept. The executive orders show just how little the current administration is willing to work with Ankara to lessen its burden, despite the surface congeniality Trump has recently shown toward Erdogan.  

Hypocrisy Abounds

It is severely hypocritical for a government to claim it is effectively combating human trafficking while simultaneously enacting policies which make people more likely to become trafficking victims. People who are forced into illegal channels of migration, or who are made to remain in countries with limited opportunities are inherently more vulnerable to exploitation. By turning their backs on refugees currently in Turkey, the U.S. and EU are making traffickers’ jobs that much easier and more lucrative. The best way to start to have an impact on a crime as complex and multi-faceted as human trafficking is to address the root causes leading individuals or populations to become vulnerable in the first place.  


Photo via Pixabay


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.


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One Response to “The Inherent Hypocrisy of Claiming to Combat Human Trafficking While Closing Borders”

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