Heather Komenda: studying to understand, acting to protect

For the past 20 years, Heather Komenda, Regional Thematic Specialist, Migrant Protection and Assistance at the International Organization for Migration, has been working to better understand the phenomenon of human trafficking, and to offer these people, who have not been spared by life, the best possible protection!

Interview by Camille Léveillé

International human trafficking

Every day, almost 50 million people around the world fall victim to labor and sexual exploitation. « In the 2010s, when I was working in Southeast Asia, I worked with men who were victims of trafficking on fishing boats. Their working and living conditions, more generally, were horrific. They had been at sea for many years, never to return to dry land. The trade was well established. These men’s work consisted solely of catching fish, after which other boats would come and go to collect the fish and take them back to the mainland. They also explained that, if they were injured or rebellious, they were no longer fit to work. In such cases, they were abandoned on a desert island, with only other rejected victims of trafficking for companionship. At the time, it was very difficult for me to make sure that didn’t happen again, because I had to work on the whole supply chain to make sure it didn’t happen again, » says Heather Komenda, adding : « 27.6 million people are exploited in the world at any one time. Of these, 15.1 million are in Asia, 4.1 million in Europe and Central Asia, 3.8 million in Africa, 3.6 million in the Americas and 0.9 million in the Arab countries. It is interesting to note, however, that this regional ranking changes when expressed as a percentage of the population. The ranking is then reversed and the Arab States come out on top with 5.3 per thousand inhabitants”. Of course, the fishing industry is not the only sector in which forced labor wreaks havoc. Services, manufacturing, construction, agriculture and domestic work are all sectors in which women, men and children are victims of torturers.

The emergence of new trends

« Poverty, marginalization, financial exclusion, illegal migration status, low levels of education, disability and dysfunctional family environments, conflict and crime are all factors that increase people’s vulnerability, » stresses the IOM analyst. Worse still, when crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic or climate change are added to the mix, vulnerability increases and new trends emerge. « During the pandemic and the increase in digital use, we noticed that sexual exploitation had moved online. We are finding it very hard to understand this new phenomenon, as we don’t yet have the statistics to understand the scale of this new trend. Children are not savvy Internet users, » continues Heather Komenda, even though online exploitation of minors is increasing year on year. In 2022, 32 million reports were received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 3 million more than in 2021…1

The effects of another crisis are of particular concern to the analyst. « We now know that there are links between human trafficking and climate change. So, to gain a better understanding of this new phenomenon, we are currently carrying out a research project on this issue, focusing on the East African region. Climate change and environmental degradation undermine livelihoods, exacerbate poverty, increase the risk of natural disasters and can be factors in conflict and instability, all of which can create situations of vulnerability that are exploited by traffickers. » she laments.

Migrant populations: more vulnerable

« At IOM, we obviously focus our work on the migrant population. We look at countries of origin, transit and destination. Even before they leave, we try to make potential migrants aware of the difficulties of the migratory journey and the risks to which they are exposed, such as sexual exploitation or forced labor. Part of our job is to help people understand that the risk is real. They are often quite well informed. But, if we really want to have an impact on their decision to leave their country, we have to work on the reasons that drive them to migrate, whether it’s crime, lack of education, poverty, denial of human rights, etc. I think the work we do with governments, for example, to reduce push factors helps to prevent dangerous and irregular migration, » explains Heather Komenda, before going on to talk about what she sees as the most dangerous moment in migration: « Arrival in transit countries is a really delicate time for migrants. At this point, we realize that migrants are no longer anyone’s problem, which makes them even more vulnerable: they have no one to turn to, and sometimes trust the wrong people…« 

The war in Ukraine as a sword of Damocles

« At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, we really feared an explosion in cases of exploitation of all kinds, and we had several factors to explain our concern. In general, conflicts increase the risk of exploitation. Migration flows were essentially made up of women and children, a population vulnerable. Finally, the problem of human trafficking had already affected Ukraine before the war. All international observers were worried, and rightly so. In the end, no one sees the increase in the number of victims in Ukraine. In the case of Ukraine, the fact that migration has been, for the majority of the population, regular migration helps to mitigate vulnerability. To our knowledge, there are no cases of large-scale exploitation in Ukraine. European border guards are aware of human trafficking and are working to protect the Ukrainian population. We need to remain vigilant as not all risks have disappeared, » stresses Heather Komenda.

Stepping up efforts

Prevent. Protect. Prosecute. These are the three pillars of the fight against human exploitation. “Prevention efforts focus mainly on raising awareness among vulnerable populations, enabling them to protect themselves and inform those close to them in order to combat human trafficking. Enforcement efforts aim to strengthen the capacity of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute those who recruit and exploit victims for profit,” says Heather Komenda. But the protection aspect remains the part on which the human rights protector feels she carries the most weight. « I have to say that I’m extremely proud of our anti-trafficking program, in which we offer ongoing protection and assistance to victims. In the long term, this work aims to help victims of trafficking to acquire and recover their roles and responsibilities, and to recover economically, socially and psychosocially. We have been able to help 100,000 people like Andrey, who escaped labor exploitation in the Russian Federation, walking back to Belarus through the forests. With the help of the IOM, he started a small market-gardening business, » she reveals, adding: « When you help someone in this context, you’re not just helping them, you’re saving them and their loved ones”. But for Heather Komenda, this is not enough: « From now on, we, but also States, must address the drivers of trafficking, support the engagement of survivors and contribute to their empowerment. We must remember that effective responses are part of development and governance programmes that create more just and equitable societies, thereby reducing overall vulnerability. Above all, I think it is important to tell ourselves that we all have a role to play as citizens and consumers. When we buy a T-shirt for 3 euros, we should all be aware that the person who made it could be a victim of forced labor« .