“Without freedom you are nothing, you are not a human being. But if you have freedom, you can do anything for yourself” says Emma*, an asylum seeker from Sierra Leone, currently on the Greek island of Lesvos.
Emma is 25 years old. She left Sierra Leone fearing for her life due to political persecution. Orphaned at a young age, once she was old enough to support herself, she began to take care of other orphaned children who needed help in her home country. She became politically active to support the most vulnerable, which ultimately led to her fleeing her country.
In the Summer of 2019, Emma left Sierra Leone by boat. She was assured by the smuggler – who later turned out to be a trafficker – that she would be taken to a safe country and that she had no reason to worry. Ultimately, this man used his position of power to sexually abuse Emma throughout the three-month boat journey, until they eventually arrived in Turkey.
But her ordeal was far from over. Upon arrival, she was approached by three men, again purporting to help her. This proved to be the beginning of an 18- month ordeal of sexual exploitation and abuse, from which she only escaped a few months ago.
Sadly, her story is not unique. According to UNODC, in 2018 about 50,000 victims of human trafficking were reported in over 148 different countries making it a truly global phenomenon. Around half of victims are specifically trafficked for sexual exploitation.
Trafficking is defined in the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol as “the recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation”.
Trafficking victims are treated as commodities and bought and sold for exploitation of one form or another. Those targeted by traffickers are usually vulnerable and marginalized. This can include refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern to UNHCR.
Globally, UNHCR works with multiple UN agencies to develop initiatives to address human trafficking, including the 2020 Joint Framework Document on the development of Standard Operating Procedures to facilitate the identification and protection of victims of trafficking, with IOM. Trafficking is also specifically addressed in the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees (GCR).
Emma was lucky to escape her captors. Eventually, she managed to board a boat and arrived in Lesvos earlier this year. She has suffered severe medical issues in the aftermath of the sustained abuse but is grateful for the medical care she is now receiving with the support of UNHCR and our partner organization Diotima. She has even begun working as a community volunteer.
With UNHCR support and EU funding, Diotima is providing gender-based violence (GBV) prevention and response services. Last year alone, Diotima provided psychosocial support to more than 800 GBV survivors and legal aid to more than 600 GBV survivors, while prevention activities reached more than 2,800 people.
Although Emma now feels safe and is receiving support, her trust in others has been impacted due to her ordeal. “I would like to tell all the women not to trust anyone, man or woman, that promises to help you…Trust only in yourself, be strong, and do not accept any false promises that will later cost you your freedom,” she adds.
In the future, Emma hopes to learn to read and write and to work in business, so that she can earn enough money to continue to help others, especially orphans and those who are marginalized in society, no matter where she goes.
*Name changed for protection reasons