Missing persons and human trafficking: A possible nexus

06 September 2020
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Updated 06 September 2020

Missing persons and human trafficking: A possible nexus

July 30 marks the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons and Aug. 30 marks the International Day of Missing Persons so the timing of these two dates could be less of a coincidence than it might seem.

The correlation between missing persons and human trafficking is unavoidable, and a topic that is under-researched. Missing persons and human trafficking are both transnational issues and so strongly interlinked that in many cases action in one area directly impacts the other.

Most of the time, the vulnerable people who involuntarily go missing are the same vulnerable people that are susceptible to being trafficked.

Ambiguity, complexity and lack of research has impeded discourse to connect the interlinkages, which if strengthened may promote better coherence that will eliminate the gap between the two topics of missing persons and human trafficking and serve to maximize the achievement of collective outcomes for the common good.

One of the main challenges hindering the establishment of a linkage between the two topics is related to behavioral aspects of missing persons, which can be unpredictable and make it challenging to construct typologies of missing persons and may distort the figures of who qualifies as one.

There are two categories of missing person. One is involuntary, and can have links with human trafficking, and the other type is deliberate and in many cases not necessarily identified as a missing persons case but a loss of contact by choice. What falls under the possible nexus between missing persons and human trafficking and the focus of this article is involuntary missing persons.

Disappearances under unknown circumstances of involuntary missing persons may share common causes that include being lost in migration routes worldwide, domestic violence, child abduction, poverty, homelessness, lack of communication and access to service providers (mainly in-relation to refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons, mental health (including suicide or ailments such as Alzheimer’s, dementia or memory loss), drug abuse (recreational or addiction) natural disasters and escaping genocide.

Despite diverse involuntary reasons for disappearing, such people share a common vulnerability, which makes them potential victims of crime and more prone to being exploited by human traffickers.

There are two main international organizations that may be considered as the international benchmark for missing persons: The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), mainly focused on policymaking and capacity building, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); mainly focused on the humanitarian aspect. This is in addition to regional and national organizations that belong to the ICRD and third sector INGOs such as Child Focus in Belgium, and The Smile of the Child in Greece.

As the ICRC covers the topic of missing persons from a humanitarian approach, its definition of a missing person is someone “whose whereabouts are unknown to his/her relatives and/or who, on the basis of reliable information, has been reported missing in accordance with the national legislation.”

Discourse on human trafficking began to attract the attention of UN decision-makers in the 1990s, who at first associated it with facilitated irregular migration.

This discussion continued until 2000 when the UN was inspired to establish a Trafficking Protocol to define human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation.

The modern discourse on fighting human trafficking was relaunched in March 2007 through the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, which marked 200 years since the abolition of the traditional slave trade. As a result, during the past few years much work has been done in this field in literature, awareness campaigns and improving victim identification.

In the past few years, Saudi Arabia has undertaken a successful case study and achieved remarkable progress through reforms, introducing new measures and most recently launching a digital international awareness campaign titled “United Against Trafficking.” The campaign is a successful digital communications case study that disrupts the status-quo by combining creative tactics, applying omni-partiality, and a resonance-informed ad-hoc art exhibition by Saudi artists as a visual tool to expand the campaign’s platform.

The campaign was the first initiative of the newly established Saudi Arabia’s National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT), which falls under Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission and involves intergovernmental agencies, in partnership with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It was launched on July 30, on the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.

The National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking emphasized the importance of global dedication, commitment and coherence to eradicate all forms of human trafficking through reduction then prevention mechanisms worldwide.

In addition to the emotional impact on the families, friends and community who have lost a loved one, the social and economic impact of missing persons is profound as a result of search costs, loss of earnings and mental health and legal costs.

According to a study conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology, for 30,000 missing persons it costs more than $70 million per year. Research published by the OECD estimated that trafficking in persons had become one of the most lucrative forms of organized crime after arms and drugs trafficking, with illicit profits exceeding $150 billion every year.

By understanding the web of interconnections between missing persons and human trafficking we can optimize trade-offs and increase co-benefits to reach our common goals.

Solutions must be applied in two parallel directions; elimination and prevention. With elimination, it is important to start by addressing more of the structural causes of vulnerability by using a root-cause analysis.

Elimination has four main elements; financial, educational, psychological and legal.

Financial institutions can play an important role in unmasking illicit traders though the financial trail they leave behind. In addition, it is important to raise awareness on the less common unseen forms of human trafficking including the illicit trade in organs, organ harvesting, child harvesting, drug trade, labor trafficking and the recruiting of child soldiers.

On education, it is crucial to recognize the importance of inter-agency integration and building their capabilities to use the latest technologies and tools for identification of traffickers and those who are being trafficked, in addition to using forensic sciences to identify deceased or missing/trafficked persons.

A successful recent example is the efforts by the NCCHT in partnership with some UN agencies through a program called the “National Referral Mechanism,” which is a capacity-building workshop for Saudi practitioners from inter-related agencies on best practices for handling cases of trafficking in persons. This is a great model and toolkit for other countries in improving capacity knowledge and integration.

For the psychological aspect, the media can play a huge role in reprogramming the collective consuming behaviors of buyers across the globe through campaigning. This may the most challenging factor since different cultures have different beliefs and values, however, we must be reminded of our objective pan-cultural virtues.

On the legal element, without the international high demand on commercial buyers, in addition to the relatively less-relaxed law enforcement, there would be no transnational human trafficking. Disrupting the supply chain can not only end human trafficking but also save future generations from becoming potential victims.

A nexus approach can be used to better understand and enable academics, policymakers and practitioners to achieve solutions that will optimize results in both missing persons and human trafficking.

This is a cross-national issue. Close coordination between nations may be hard to achieve but it is not impossible. Promoting open dialogue, close coordination in policy, planning and actions and using innovative modelling, and increasing close coordination in international cross-border identification can provide solutions and allow for both theorists and field experts to come up with alternative solutions to disrupt the cycles of human trafficking, which will also tackle the topic of missing persons.


Abeer S. Al-Saud is an op-ed writer for Arab News exploring development, peace and cultural topics. The views expressed in this piece are personal. Twitter: @asmalsaud