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October 03, 2022

Human Trafficking: Incidental to Conflict and an Instrument of War in the MENA Region

The panelists at the ABA International Law Section’s Fall 2022 Conference.

The panelists at the ABA International Law Section’s Fall 2022 Conference.

There is often a direct relationship between being risk of being trafficked and overall vulnerability experienced at individual and community levels. [1] Risks of exploitation are linked to and stem from pre-existing inequalities (e.g., gender or racially based discrimination, poverty, lack of social safety nets, poverty, etc.); conflict situations drive risks and vulnerabilities especially when it leads to people being displaced or stateless. [2]

ABA ROLI has over a decade’s experience implementing anti-trafficking projects in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. On September 16, ABA ROLI Jordan’s Country Director, Laura Milne, traveled to Madrid to bring light to the issue of human trafficking amid conflict settings on a panel at the ABA International Law Section’s Fall 2022 Conference: “Recognizing human trafficking as a common occurrence during conflict and building protection and anti-trafficking strategies into global responses.” Laura was joined on the panel by Dr. Golnoosh Hakimdavar, Team Lead Conflict and Violence Prevention, USAID; Teresa Jennings, Head of Rule of Law Development for LexisNexis Legal & Professional; and Professor Luz Estrella Nagle, Professor of Law at Stetson University College of Law. Facilitated by Afsoon McClellan, Director, Global Associate, LexisNexis Legal & Professional, the panelists shared their experiences of working on trafficking and how conflict exacerbates its occurrence, what trafficking looks like in their respective regions of work, and effective response strategies. 

Laura Milne speaking at the ABA International Law Section’s Fall 2022 Conference

Laura Milne speaking at the ABA International Law Section’s Fall 2022 Conference

Laura outlined for the audience the situation on human trafficking in Jordan and MENA, and how it is both incidental to conflict and used as an instrument of war. Human trafficking is incidental to conflict in Jordan and MENA in two ways. First, non-MENA nationals from countries affected by conflict are exploited through trafficking across the region. These are migrant workers, trafficked either from outside or within the region, sometimes repeatedly. This is particularly acute among domestic workers from countries such Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia. Second, refugees from conflict in the region are vulnerable to exploitation through human trafficking. Highlighting the Syrian example, Laura pointed to recent statistics from Jordan which demonstrate their extreme vulnerability to human trafficking, with 85% households holding debt and 46% parents saying that they eat less in order to provide food for their children as a coping mechanism. This vulnerability is intensified for undocumented or stateless refugees, who are often denied access to education and healthcare and are not permitted to work. There is an increased risk of trafficking among children out of school. A lack of education also leads to unemployment or low employment, again increasing a person’s risk of being targeted by traffickers.

Like elsewhere, trafficking in MENA is also instrumental as a form of waging conflict. It is used as a tool by armed groups to unlawfully recruit people (through fraud, force, or coercion) for labor or services in conflict situations. There are many instances of this in MENA, including in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Children may be exploited as porters or human shields, men into armed combat, and women into sexual slavery for combatants. This form of trafficking also serves to terrorize and subjugate communities in conflict. One example of this is the targeting of thousands of Yazidi women and children by Islamic State. While the men were executed, women and children were kidnapped and traded for forced marriages, domestic servitude, and sexual slavery. 

Building resilience at all levels (e.g., individual, community, regional, national) is key to deterring and preventing human trafficking. Over the next year, ABA ROLI will continue to support counter-trafficking projects in Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia while assisting the development of systems and tools that better safeguard individuals and communities against trafficking. This includes support to governments to develop national strategies and national referral mechanisms, support to civil society to deliver legal services to survivors, work with the judiciary to improve implementation of trafficking laws, and networking of protection service providers in origin and destination countries. ABA ROLI will also continue to seek out opportunities to share information about trafficking in MENA, along with best practices and lessons learned among a broader audience. Trafficking in persons is a complex global issue which requires a well-coordinated and well-informed response, particularly in conflict settings; ABA ROLI remains steadfast in its commitment to prevent human trafficking while also ensuring that survivors of trafficking have access to high-quality, survivor-centered and trauma-informed protection services.

The statements and analysis expressed in this paper are solely those of the author. The Board of Governors of the American Bar Association (ABA) has neither reviewed nor sanctioned its contents. Accordingly, the views expressed herein should not be construed as representing the position or policy of the ABA. Furthermore, nothing contained in this paper is to be considered rendering legal advice for specific cases, and readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel. 

Learn more about ABA ROLI’s work across the Middle East and North Africa.

[1] See generally “An Introduction to Human Trafficking: Vulnerability, Impact and Action,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, available at

[2] United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, “Trafficking in Persons in Conflict Situations: The World Must Strengthen Prevention and Accountability,” July 29, 2022, available at