This week, the State Department published its 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, which ranks governments on their efforts to combat human trafficking. Yemen is classified as a Special Case in the report because of the increased difficulties in obtaining information about human trafficking due to the ongoing war. The conflict in Yemen has intensified the magnitude of violence and lawlessness in the country while hindering the government’s ability to address and prevent human trafficking. The violence and accompanying economic and humanitarian crises have left significant numbers of people vulnerable to human trafficking, whether it takes the form of forced labor, sexual exploitation, or underage military recruitment:
The civil conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen deepened during the reporting period, and information on human trafficking in the country has become increasingly difficult to obtain since March 2015 when the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) had to leave and relinquished control of substantial portions of territory. NGOs reported vulnerable populations in Yemen are at an increased risk of being subjected to trafficking due to large-scale violence driven by protracted armed conflict, civil unrest, and lawlessness.
Yemen is an origin, transit, and destination country for victims of human trafficking. Although it is difficult to accurately measure the extent of trafficking amidst the conflict, vulnerable groups faced abuse before the onset of the war. Yemeni children have been victims of both forced labor and sex trafficking; girls have been used for commercial sex and exploitative “temporary marriages,” and boys have been forced into jobs such as domestic services or begging. UN reports expand on the State Department’s description of child exploitation by detailing the rise in child marriages, particularly with girls, as a way for families facing dire economic circumstances and famine to lessen the financial burden. Unofficial reports have documented cases of chattel slavery, where humans are treated and inherited as property. Furthermore, Yemen functions as a destination and a transit point to the Gulf for migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa, particularly women and children, some of whom are trafficked. The increased violence and reduced governance as a result of the war is likely to have magnified trafficking patterns and the vulnerability of these groups.
The government of Yemen faces difficulties in addressing human trafficking on multiple fronts. Government corruption and weak institutions pose a great challenge to anti-trafficking efforts. Additionally, the legal system doesn’t adequately confront the extent of trafficking: there is little enforcement of the anti-trafficking laws that exist, and these laws don’t sufficiently cover the variety of forms of human trafficking. The conflict exacerbates these problems, diminishing the ability of the government to identify and provide services to trafficking victims, investigate trafficking issues, and implement anti-trafficking strategies.
The outbreak of the conflict has increased the use of child soldiers. Human rights organizations have documented the use of child soldiers by all parties to the conflict. Although the government agreed to end this practice, it hasn’t released children from its own military forces or implemented the UN action plan to end the recruitment of child soldiers. Furthermore, the government has detained children who were accused of being associated with the Houthis. The combined inability and unwillingness of the government to address the issue of child soldiers and the continuing economic crisis obstructs the possibility of meaningful action against this situation. Additionally, the government’s impotence as a result of the war has allowed for a black market for human trafficking and smuggling to proliferate, deepening the scope of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
Governance in Yemen has deteriorated under the ongoing conflict; violence and insecurity targets vulnerable people with impunity. Economic devastation takes advantage of children, forcing them into armed struggles, labor, or sex trafficking. Migrants and women are exposed to the patterns and consequences of trafficking, unsupported by laws or government services. As the war persists, human trafficking doubtlessly will carry on unabated.