by Shivaun Scanlan, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
The first thing that might come to mind when thinking of human trafficking and disabilities is the relatively widespread phenomenon of forced begging of those with visual physical disabilities on the Asian or African continent. A wheel-chair bound child for example sitting at the side of a busy road intersection in a major city watched over by someone in the shadows. And many of the global reports on trafficking in persons published by the UNODC indeed highlight the data indicating connections between forced begging and disability. But the problem does not stop there. In Europe and beyond, cases of women and girls with both physical and cognitive disabilities forced into sexual exploitation are detected, as well as cases of men with cognitive disabilities forced into labour exploitation. 
But alongside disability rendering some people more at risk of certain forms of trafficking, the experience of trafficking might also cause people severe disabilities. One report looking at trafficking in Eastern Sudan for example, targeting young Eritreans seeking refuge in the country, found that 16% of trafficking victims were afflicted with a permanent disability following their trafficking experience; this outcome reflecting the brutality of their captors.
While there are global and regional agreements to criminalise human trafficking, persons with disabilities remain largely invisible in the international frameworks, national legislation and strategies to tackle human trafficking. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CPRD) adopted in 2006 does not specifically refer to human trafficking, but does prohibit torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (article 15), exploitation, violence and abuse (article 16), and protects the integrity of the person (article 17).
Meanwhile the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), in its General Recommendation no.38 (2020) on trafficking in women and girls in the context of global migration, recognises that women and girls most vulnerable to trafficking belong to marginalised groups, including persons with disabilities, and calls on States to provide them with adequate assistance by providing specialised social and economic support.
The issue has also been highlighted by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which has raised concerns in regard to trafficking and persons with disabilities in its concluding observations regarding a number of countries including Haiti, Dominican Republic, Niger and Thailand related to forced begging, sexual exploitation, forced labour, and human trafficking for organ removal.
The lack of awareness of the issue however means that both prevention and protection strategies are lacking and awareness about the problem is unlikely to change as long as the data remains hidden. Currently few trafficking reports disaggregate data by disability, so it is not possible to know how many people are affected.
Not only are persons with disabilities more vulnerable to trafficking due to various factors - discrimination, isolation, social and economic marginalisation, dependence on others to name the most obvious - but the overall anti-trafficking response framework in many countries appears to be failing persons with disabilities too. Based, as they are, on the identification and referral of cases, protection of victims and access to justice - few of these response mechanisms have integrated an understanding of the needs of persons with disabilities. Instead, identifying and reporting cases fail due to communication barriers, a lack of awareness, and misconceptions about disability. And protection and support services - such as shelter, healthcare, and legal aid - are rendered inaccessible as the kind of support tailored to the people’s unique needs has not been taken into account, such as accessible shelters, communication aids, and disability inclusive legal and rehabilitation services.
Finally, those fleeing conflict with disabilities face additional challenges in the context of trafficking risks and encounter additional barriers to assistance that could protect them from harm. The need to recognise the heightened vulnerabilities faced by persons with disabilities in the context of migration and forced displacement, including the need for specialised physical and psycho-social support, screening processes that better identify disabilities that are less visible, and ensuring that reception facilities provide assistance devices, such as ramps and wheelchairs, are some of the key asks that international organisations and civil society organisations working in these contexts are reportedly striving to provide.
. See Human trafficking and Smuggling in Eastern Sudan, Dr Hassan Abdel Ati, 2017. Available at https://www.cmi.no/publications/file/6325-human-smuggling-and-trafficking-in-eastern-sudan.pdf
. See European Disability Forum, Position Paper on combating trafficking in persons with disabilities (March 2022) Available at https://www.edf-feph.org/publications/position-paper-on-combatting-trafficking-in-persons-with-disabilities/
. See for example IOM/UNHCR Framework for cooperation - Identification and referral 2020, Available at https://www.refworld.org/docid/5ee22b4f4.html