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HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN AFGHANISTAN SINCE THE TALIBAN TAKEOVER


Alberto Suarez (CENTCOM), Panagiotis Mavrommatis, Erwan Mahoudo, Asia Vellante (OSINT)

Hannah Norton, Editor

Week of January 1, 2022



Afghan evacuees disembarking from a U.S. Air Force Airplane[1]



The worsening humanitarian situation in Afghanistan very likely drives human trafficking a families sell their children due to poverty. The international community’s reluctance to provide aid will almost certainly worsen the situation. In Afghanistan, human trafficking is facilitated by selling girls to pay debts and the custom of Bacha Bazi – trafficking young boys for sexual pleasure and wealth.[2] Limited internet access makes its use in human trafficking unlikely, but it is likely that smugglers with access to the internet use it in their operations. Victims of human trafficking are very likely to be uneducated and experience social and emotional trauma, likely to result in social exclusion. This is very likely to be exploited by the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K) to recruit victims of human trafficking. Efforts by the international community to tackle poverty, Taliban’s decision to ban forced marriages, and the judging and conviction of those involved in human trafficking are likely to weaken human trafficking in Afghanistan.[3]


Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, reports of human trafficking have appeared.[4] A CNN report showed an Afghan family forcibly marrying their nine-year-old daughter to an older man to pay debts.[5] It is very likely that under the Taliban’s control, food and money will become scarce. Without access to necessary resources, poor families in rural areas are very likely to sell their daughters for food. The international community is reluctant to allow international aid to reach Afghanistan, for fear of legitimizing the Taliban.[6] This is very likely to increase poverty in populations highly dependent on international aid, which will likely result in more girls being trafficked.


Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation is unlikely to attract international donors to fight human trafficking. Several countries and institutions provide billions of dollars of humanitarian aid to combat poverty and support education and welfare services.[7] Since incoming aid is handled by the receiving government or NGOs, it is likely that much of the aid will be mishandled by corrupt, unsupervised Taliban entities. The effectiveness of foreign aid against human trafficking cannot be measured since it does not address it directly, but rather works as a preventive measure against it.[8] With much of the aforementioned foreign aid frozen amid the Taliban takeover of the country, human trafficking will very likely soar due to impoverished families resorting to selling or trading their children to meet their basic needs. China and Russia have maintained their diplomatic delegations in Kabul.[9] While it is unlikely that financial investments by both States will happen in the short term, their diplomatic bodies’ presence in the country likely indicates that both States accept the Taliban's rule. If both States recognize the Taliban, their humanitarian aid and economic investment will likely reduce human trafficking. It is likely that a constant flow of humanitarian aid from China and Russia will deter families from selling their daughters for resources.


Marrying young girls to older men is one of the ways by which human trafficking takes place.[10] Seeing this practice as a cultural tradition rather than something harmful is likely to play a part in its acceptance as an avenue for human trafficking. Debt traps and the inability to repay loans are other ways in which human trafficking occurs.[11] Debt traps are likely to be normalized under the Taliban, as hunger will almost certainly push families to go into debt for money. This is very likely to result in girls being sold to pay debts. Girls are more likely to be sold than boys as people are very likely to see girls as more of a burden than boys due to social customs. The Taliban-controlled government has banned forced marriages.[12] This ban is is likely to deprive human traffickers of an avenue to exploit girls, but limited Taliban control throughout the country is likely to weaken this decision. The Taliban includes multiple factions with different levels of extremism.[13] Due to the secularization of the country, the remoteness of rural areas, and a failing economy, it is very likely that the ban will not be known and applied everywhere in the country.


Human trafficking will likely leave a large portion of the population without access to education and increase mental health issues. This will likely hinder the country’s development and growth. Secondary education is very likely to empower children with the skills to get a job to make them useful to their families. By banning secondary education for girls, families are very likely to perceive girls as unable to provide income. The Taliban’s decision to stop girls accessing secondary education will likely force families to consider selling their children.[14] This decision is also very likely to worsen human trafficking as it will almost certainly deprive girls of an avenue to empower themselves, likely making them susceptible to human trafficking. Similarly, without a proper education, young boys trafficked through the practice of Bacha Bazi are likely to become radicalized by terrorist groups preying on the uneducated.


Bacha Bazi is common in Afghanistan despite the Taliban banning it when they were in power from 1996-2001.[15] Bacha Bazi will likely continue in remote areas, where Taliban authority is unlikely to be present. Before the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, investigations were undertaken against pedophile rings in the country.[16] Such investigations have almost certainly been stopped by the Taliban. Taliban purges of police officers working for the previous administration resulted in the killing or disappearance of police officers investigating the pedophile rings.[17] This is very likely to result in pedophile networks remaining operational in the country. The deteriorating humanitarian and economic situation in Afghanistan is very likely to result in Bacha Bazi continuing as a way of making money.


In Afghanistan, 13.5% of the population uses the internet.[18] It is very likely that the population using the internet is the urban middle class. Job stability, access to a constant source of food, and Western education makes it unlikely that Afghanistan`s middle class is involved in human trafficking. Limited use of the internet in human trafficking almost certainly indicates how connections to older relatives of the victims and smuggling networks are very likely predominately used by traffickers in Afghanistan. However, smugglers wealthy enough to access the internet are likely to use it in their job. Encrypted messaging apps are very likely used to carry out their operations and cover their footprints.


Human trafficking, particularly child trafficking, leads to deep physical, mental, and health consequences. The emotional and psychological impact of human trafficking is very likely to become a challenge for children involved. Young girls sold to marriage are old enough to be aware of their fate, increasing the trauma of being sold and taken away from their families.[19] Girls who are forcibly married will likely become pregnant, especially through instances of sexual abuse, will likely not receive the proper medical support needed to have a successful pregnancy, very likely leading to complications resulting in death. In Afghanistan, the death rate amongst 15 to 19-year-old girls is 531 per 100,000 births, higher than the death rate amongst 20 to 24-year-olds.[20] Human trafficking victims are also likely to be victims of multiple forms of abuse, also known as polyvictimization; this trauma is more powerful than multiple episodes of a single type of abuse.[21] Due to increased poverty in Afghanistan, the Taliban-controlled government will likely not provide necessary resources for mental health care, likely worsening victims' emotional and psychological traumas.


Young boys are also very likely to suffer the consequences of human trafficking, particularly Bacha Bazi victims. They will likely be alienated by society due to the stigma of being “Bacha boys.” Victims of Bacha Bazi carry a social stigma that makes it difficult to re-enter society.[22] This will likely alienate them, pushing them toward trafficking networks. The psychological trauma of human trafficking is likely to be exploited by ISIS-K for recruitment, offering those who have been victims of Bacha Bazi a way to feel accepted via terrorism. As it is unlikely that boys will receive education under this practice, they are likely to become indoctrinated with extremist ideas, increasing the likelihood of recruitment by ISIS-K. This will almost certainly worsen Afghanistan’s security situation. Due to the worsening humanitarian crisis, it is unlikely that victims of trafficking will receive necessary mental health treatment.


According to the International Labor Organization, trafficking victims primarily end up in Asia, with some of them ending up in Europe.[23] People fleeing the country in fear of being trafficking victims will likely increase the migratory flow to Asia and Europe. Countries bordering Afghanistan -such as Iran and Pakistan- will very likely be more affected by human trafficking cases. It is very likely that smugglers will travel smaller distances and sell their victims to nearby countries, likely more cost efficient for traffickers. European countries are unlikely to be as affected as Asian countries. Alternatively, human trafficking is likely to encourage refugee flows to Europe as Afghans are very likely to believe that smuggling networks are the best way to reach Europe due to their knowledge of routes.


Campaigns, like the one sponsored by USAID, aim to raise awareness and train public stakeholders against human trafficking.[24] It is unlikely that such campaigns have a direct effect on the country’s trafficking problem since traffickers are not likely to be deterred until there is an imminent threat to their operations that could result in arrest or seized assets. It is very likely that the educational results of the campaign were minimized, as many people who worked on the campaign have been fired or replaced by the Taliban.


Law enforcement operations are being conducted to fight human trafficking. INTERPOL’s Operation Liberterra resulted in the arrest of 286 suspects and the dismantling of several crime groups around the world.[25] Ground operations coordinated by law enforcement agencies and military forces are almost certainly more effective against trafficking than other direct efforts like awareness and training campaigns to combat the issue. Due to its global nature, it is very likely that Operation Liberterra delivered a strong hit to Afghanistan’s trafficking networks as possible affiliates outside the country were likely targeted during the operation. Trafficking networks have likely lost some of their international affiliates and potential buyers. Such operations will likely further disincentivize traffickers by adding a greater risk to their operations.


The arrest and conviction of individuals and groups involved in human trafficking by the Taliban is likely to dissuade human trafficking in Afghanistan. Removing Taliban officials involved in smuggling operations across the Iranian and Pakistani borders will likely deter human traffickers, who likely profit from Taliban complacency. This is likely to be a feasible option if the economic situation stabilizes. If Afghanistan’s situation worsens, including increased terrorist attacks, violence, and lack of external support, the economy will very likely collapse. The majority of the population will very likely move towards the parallel economy to survive, especially human trafficking. It is likely that an increase in illicit activities will make arresting traffickers even more difficult since the Taliban-controlled government will likely prioritize security concerns, such as fighting ISIS-K, as a to avoid further loss of support from the population and prevent a civil war rather than human trafficking. Fighting ISIS-K and stabilizing the economy are likely to weaken anti-human trafficking operations.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends the creation of a mixed government with clear roles that includes members from all the factions present in Afghanistan. This government would address the spread of the parallel economy, indirectly decreasing human trafficking and tackling security concerns. The international community is likely to provide financial aid for the Taliban government if a mixed government is formed. Money coming to Afghanistan is very likely to prevent the economy from failing. Money is likely to address poverty and hunger, key drivers of human trafficking in Afghanistan. The new mixed government should receive access to Afghanistan’s central bank reserves held by the US. Countries receiving Afghan refugees and human trafficking victims should be ready to provide social workers able to identify polyvictimization to ensure the best care for the victims. Additionally, if financial support is provided to Afghanistan, international organizations should ensure that the funds are directed to mental health programs to help the victims re-enter society while providing a safer environment.


________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Afghan evacuees disembark a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Naval Air Station Sigonella, August. 22, 2021. , by Commander, U.S Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet licensed under Public Domain

[2] Shame and Silence: Bacha Bazi in Afghanistan, Geopolitical Monitor, May 2020, https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/shame-and-silence-bacha-bazi-in-afghanistan/

[3] Taliban band forced marriage of women in Afghanistan, Al Jazeera, December 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/3/taliban-bans-forced-marriage-calls-for-equal-rights-for-women

[4] Afghan evacuation raises concerns about child trafficking, Associated Press, September 2021, https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-child-trafficking-27d93a340c4834d497eb36e22bb72f42

[5] Afghan families are selling their children so they can eat as the economy crumbles, CNN, November 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/01/asia/afghanistan-child-marriage-crisis-taliban-intl-hnk-dst/index.html

[6] Will aid for Afghanistan strengthen the Taliban?, DW, September 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/will-aid-for-afghanistan-strengthen-the-taliban/a-59181590

[7] What did billions in aid to Afghanistan accomplish? 5 questions answered, The Conversation, October 2021, https://theconversation.com/what-did-billions-in-aid-to-afghanistan-accomplish-5-questions-answered-166804

[8] U.S. Approach To Countering Human Trafficking Left Some Foreign Aid Funding In Limbo Including Ebola Support, KFF, June 2019 https://www.kff.org/news-summary/trump-administrations-approach-to-countering-human-trafficking-left-some-foreign-aid-funding-in-limbo-including-ebola-support/

[9] Taliban Says China will be ‘Main Partner’ To Rebuild Afghanistan, Gandhara, September 2021, https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/taliban-afghanistan-china-economy-/31440990.html

[10] Afghan families are selling their children so they can eat as the economy crumbles, CNN, November 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/01/asia/afghanistan-child-marriage-crisis-taliban-intl-hnk-dst/index.html

[11] Afghan families are selling their children so they can eat as the economy crumbles, CNN, November 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/01/asia/afghanistan-child-marriage-crisis-taliban-intl-hnk-dst/index.html

[12] Taliban Government Bans Forced Marriages Declares Women ‘Equal’ to Men, The National Interest, December 2021, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/taliban-government-bans-forced-marriages-declares-women-‘equal’-men-197571

[13] Who’s Who In The Taliban: The Men Who Run The Extremist Group And How They Operate, Informed Comment, August 2021, https://www.juancole.com/2021/08/taliban-extremist-operate.html

[14] Taliban ban girls from secondary education in Afghanistan, The Guardian, September 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/17/taliban-ban-girls-from-secondary-education-in-afghanistan

[15] What About the Boys: A Gendered Analysis of the U.S. Withdrawal and Bacha Bazi in Afghanistan, Newsline Institute for Strategy and Policy, June 2021, https://newlinesinstitute.org/afghanistan/what-about-the-boys-a-gendered-analysis-of-the-u-s-withdrawal-and-bacha-bazi-in-afghanistan/

[16] Afghanistan paedophile ring may be responsible for abuse of over 500 boys, The Guardian, November 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/nov/13/afghanistan-paedophile-ring-that-abused-over-500-boys

[17] Afghanistan: Taliban Kill, ´Disappear` Ex-Officials, Human Rights Watch, November 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/11/30/afghanistan-taliban-kill-disappear-ex-officials

[18] Will the Taliban restrict internet access in Afghanistan?, DW, August 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/will-the-taliban-restrict-internet-access-in-afghanistan/a-59029364

[19] Afghan families are selling their children so they can eat as the economy crumbles, CNN, November 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/01/asia/afghanistan-child-marriage-crisis-taliban-intl-hnk-dst/index.html

[20] Child marriage, UNPFA Afghanistan, December 2021, https://afghanistan.unfpa.org/en/node/15233

[21]Mental Health Needs, Office of Justice Program, https://www.ovcttac.gov/taskforceguide/eguide/4-supporting-victims/44-comprehensive-victim-services/mental-health-needs/

[22] Shame and Silence: Bacha Bazi in Afghanistan, Geopolitical Monitor, May 2020, https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/shame-and-silence-bacha-bazi-in-afghanistan/

[23] “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, International Labor Organization, 2017, https://www.ilo.org/global/publications/books/WCMS_575479/lang--en/index.htm

[24] “2019 Report on U.S. Government Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons,” U.S Department of State , 2019, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/2019-PITF-Report-Web.pdf

[25] 286 arrested in global human trafficking and migrant smuggling operation, Interpol, July 2021, https://www.interpol.int/en/News-and-Events/News/2021/286-arrested-in-global-human-trafficking-and-migrant-smuggling-operation

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