Concept of ‘harbouring’ in the UN Trafficking Protocol

UNODC issue paper

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has recently issued a research issue paper entitled “The Concept of Harbouring in the Trafficking in Persons Protocol” to provide information on how countries globally have incorporated the concept of harbouring in their national practice.

While the Trafficking in Persons Protocol is ratified by many countries globally, uncertainty over certain aspects of the definition of trafficking persists, as there is little guidance in the Protocol or interpretative materials concerning its meaning and application. The paper explores questions regarding the scope of ‘harbouring’, including whether it requires concealment or simply accommodation of victims, whether a victim must be harboured for a minimum period of time, and whether there is a requirement of ‘substantiveness’ to a place of harbouring.

The paper also addresses the role of ‘harbouring’ in obviating the need for movement as a component of trafficking. Although currently there is no binding definition of harbouring, the latter can be defined as the physical conduct of providing accommodation or shelter and can also encompass the concealing or holding of persons. Importantly, the condition of the place does not need to be degrading or inhumane in order for this conduct to be criminally relevant.

Harbouring a person is not per se an act of trafficking: in fact, it is only the combination of harbouring with the purpose of exploitation and the means specified by the Protocol (such as threat or use of force) that makes this conduct trafficking. The main findings of the Paper include:

  1. Harbouring can take place at any stage of a trafficking process, either before or during exploitation of the victim:
  2. The act of ‘harbouring’ does not necessarily require the physical presence of the harbourer
  3. There is very little judicial consideration of the meaning of ‘harbouring’ in reported case law
  4. There is inconsistency across jurisdictions as to whether harbouring must occur for a minimum time
  5. Some jurisdictions require a minimum ‘substantiveness’ to the place of harbouring
  6. Harbouring conduct may often be prosecuted under stand alone exploitation offences or via complicity

Earlier UNODC also launched other publications on aspects of the UN Palermo Protocol definition of human trafficking, including issues papers on the concepts of exploitation, consent and on the abuse of a position of vulnerability.