The Journey from Victim to Survivor

Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons

In the 14 years the United States has produced the Trafficking in Persons Report, the world has made tremendous progress in the fight against human trafficking. There is no government, however, that has done a perfect job responding to this crime. In the years ahead, it seems unlikely that any government will reach perfection. But should that day arrive when human trafficking disappears, one fact will remain certain: what has happened to the victims of modern slavery can never be undone. For those who have endured the exploitation of modern slavery, even the most effective justice system and the most innovative efforts to prevent future trafficking will not reverse the abuse and trauma that millions of trafficking victims have endured.

With the right support and services, however, victims can move beyond their suffering and forward with their lives. With the right legal structures and policies, they can see justice done. With the right opportunities, they can make choices about the lives they want and even use their experiences to help guide and strengthen efforts to fight this crime. This process is unique for each victim, and each must take steps based on his or her own strength, agency, and determination.

Governments play a vital role in facilitating this process. While a government institution will never be able to reverse what has happened to someone abused in a situation of modern slavery, governments can aid an individual’s recovery by providing support to each victim on his or her journey toward becoming a survivor.

In addition to assessments of what almost every government in the world is doing to combat modern slavery, this year’s Trafficking in Persons Report takes a hard look at the journey from victim to survivor, making recommendations and highlighting effective practices that, if implemented, could ease the path forward for countless survivors around the world.

Building on a Strong Foundation

For governments to properly assist victims, they must broadly and effectively implement a strong, modern, comprehensive anti-trafficking law. Such a law includes criminal provisions treating human trafficking as a serious offense with commensurately serious punishment for offenders and, just as important, victim protection measures that address needs such as immigration status, restitution, and immunity for offenses they were forced to commit during the course of the victimization.

Another early step, while seemingly obvious, is nevertheless one of the greatest challenges to anti-trafficking efforts in general: finding the victims and getting them out of harm’s way. The strongest victim protection scheme is useless if victims remain trapped in exploitation. Governments cannot sit back and wait for victims to self-identify; rather, they must proactively seek victims out by investigating high-risk sectors, screening vulnerable populations, and training relevant government officials to recognize trafficking when they see it. It is vital that victims not be treated like criminals or be subjected to arrest or deportation for other offenses.

The best approaches to victim identification are those that involve government partnerships with communities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and international organizations that can provide expertise on identifying trafficking victims and attending to their needs. For example, when police conduct raids of brothels, collaboration with NGOs can help police identify potential trafficking victims and refer them for protective services. Police can notify service providers that a raid is imminent, and the shelter can provide victims with immediate assistance.

Once victims are identified, government and civil society must ensure services are available to meet victims’ immediate needs: health care, a bed for the night, immediate protection for themselves and their family members, and counseling. These earliest stages of care are essential in easing victims out of crisis and setting the stage for sustained, long-term support.

Earlier publications of the Trafficking in Persons Report deal with these issues in greater detail (specifically the 2012 and 2013 installments with respect to victim identification and protection), and provide a more comprehensive overview of what governments can do to take the first steps of a victim-centered approach. Everything that follows relates to establishing this framework successfully.

Dignity, Security, and Respect

Meeting the immediate needs of victims of human trafficking after their identification is critical. These individuals have often endured horrific physical, psychological, and/or sexual abuse at the hands of their traffickers and others. But victim services that focus on providing support only until individuals are physically well enough to be sent on their way—or put in line for deportation—are insufficient. Those who have been enslaved have endured more than physical harm. They have been robbed of their freedom, including the freedom to make choices about their own lives. Medical care and a few nights in a shelter do not make a victim whole again. Even as the physical wounds are salved and begin healing, a major element of the recovery process is helping victims regain their agency, their dignity, and the confidence to make choices about how to move forward with their lives.

Those working with victims must respect their choices and freedom, including the right to refuse services. This respect must guide all efforts to provide support. If victims want to walk away as soon as they have escaped modern slavery, that decision should be in their control. What governments can control, however, is the range of services and support available to victims so that they have a menu of options from which to choose.

One of the most important needs of recently-liberated trafficking victims is a place to stay that is safe, yet that also respects their freedom and autonomy.

As the work of the anti-trafficking movement has shown, not all “shelters” are worthy of the title. In recent years, victims of trafficking around the world have broken free from their exploitation only to find themselves locked in so-called shelters that more closely resemble detention centers than havens of support and safety. In some places, governments succeed in identifying trafficking victims and then place them into large populations of refugees and asylum seekers, where services are not tailored to their specific needs. Trafficked persons housed in mixed-use shelters may also face stigma from other residents for their participation in prostitution or crimes they were forced to commit during their servitude.

Such environments fail to support a victim’s sense of independence and agency. Worse still, confinement and isolation—which were likely part of their exploitation—have the potential to re-traumatize.

Ideally, a shelter is a place where a trafficked person is free to stay, leave, and return again if he or she feels the need. To be sure, such facilities need to be safe and secure. Certain procedures and policies can be put in place to guarantee security, such as restrictions on who is allowed to enter a facility or even know the address. Of course, additional structures and restrictions are necessary for child victims. An effective shelter promotes, rather than hinders, a victim’s freedom of movement. And where independent living is in the best interest of the trafficked person, the use of the shelter as more of a drop-in center may be most appropriate.

Ideally, shelters work closely with other service providers to support the trafficked person well beyond the physical and psychological care that may be required initially. Individuals who do not speak the local language may need interpretation services or access to language classes. Migrant victims may need assistance obtaining immigration status from authorities. Victims who are playing a role in the prosecution of their abuser or who are seeking restitution require legal services (see next page for additional details on access to justice for victims).

As trafficked persons become more independent, they often need support in finding housing, job training, education, and employment. Best practices are to not place conditions on access to such support by requiring victims to participate in a criminal investigation, or to live in a particular shelter, or to follow a prescribed course for recovery. Assistance options are most effective if they are flexible and adaptive, reflecting the difficulty in predicting what a victim may need as he or she takes steps toward becoming a survivor. In any case, well-designed, long-term assistance does not involve telling a victim what he or she must do with his or her life, but rather entails providing the help requested to help each individual reach personal goals.

Even though governments are responsible for making sure assistance for victims is available, government agencies themselves are often not the best direct providers of care. Here is where the importance of strong partnerships becomes clear. In many countries around the world, NGOs, international organizations, and civil society groups are already providing quality assistance to victims. Many of these efforts are underfunded, and many do not have nearly the capacity to deal with the full magnitude of the problem in their regions. But when government works with civil society to amplify resources and expertise, survivors stand to benefit from enhanced services and protections.

Additionally, government collaboration with private-sector partners can help open up job opportunities to survivors. Some companies have already adopted anti-trafficking policies and practices to crack down on trafficking in supply chains and to train employees to identify trafficking when they see it. Another approach companies can take is to offer survivors employment programs and a more promising path forward.

Access to Justice

A government’s obligation to confront modern slavery is tied to the fact that trafficking in persons is first and foremost a crime, and only governments can prosecute suspects and incarcerate criminals. Similarly, only governments can confer immigration benefits or mandate restitution to victims of a crime. In the same way a government guarantees the rights of its citizens, a government has a responsibility to uphold the rule of law by punishing those who run afoul of it.

In cases of human trafficking, the government’s pursuit of justice has effects that reach beyond maintaining the sanctity of law. For those who have endured the brutality of modern slavery, seeing their abusers brought to justice can have an enormous positive impact on their recovery process. In addition to broader benefits of removing a criminal from the streets, victims’ knowledge that those who enslaved them can no longer do them or others harm can play a major role in helping overcome their trauma.

Thus, the “prosecution” component of the “3P” paradigm of prosecution, protection, and prevention cannot be fully separated from the “protection” element, as the prosecution of traffickers can be very significant in the long-term protection of victims.

Around the world, many promising practices have emerged in recent years that are improving the way governments prosecute trafficking in persons cases. Specialized courts, extensive training for judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement, and procedures to expedite trafficking cases through judicial systems are making a difference in securing more trafficking convictions, putting more abusers behind bars, and providing a sense of justice to more victims.

Of course, victims themselves often play an integral role in the successful prosecution of trafficking cases as witnesses or assisting with investigations in other ways. Victims are often hesitant to cooperate with authorities. Some may not even acknowledge or realize that they are victims of a crime, or because of dependency or “trauma bonding” may still harbor affection for their abusers or have conflicted feelings about criminal charges. It is not unusual for a victim to choose not to cooperate with authorities, testify in open court, or confront his or her trafficker. A victim-centered approach to prosecutions, however, has proven effective in bringing more victims along as participants in the investigation and prosecution of their traffickers.

The most successful legal and judicial systems employ “victim-witness coordinators” to work directly with individuals and their advocates to help them navigate the criminal justice system. Ideally, these coordinators bring expertise in dealing directly with victims and experience in ascertaining their needs and willingness to collaborate with law enforcement. When victims choose to participate in prosecution efforts, properly trained victim-witness coordinators can counsel them on what role they will play and help them prepare for depositions or court appearances. Throughout the recovery process, it is ideal for victims to have access to their own legal counsel as well.

Victims need assistance and so do law enforcement officials. Experts from civil society can provide training and assistance to law enforcement agencies working with trafficking victims. These partnerships help to create cooperative relationships between law enforcement and service providers. A trusting relationship benefits prosecution efforts and trafficking victims alike. Law enforcement officials who work regularly with victim service providers and advocates gain a better understanding of the needs and situations of trafficking victims. Advocates and attorneys who know and trust their law enforcement counterparts are better equipped to provide guidance and support to victims as they decide to come forward and assist with prosecutions without fear that the victims under their care will be mistreated.

Justice is not just limited to seeing a trafficker put behind bars. Ideally, in addition to jail time, an anti-trafficking law includes provisions that impose on traffickers an obligation to provide restitution for the loss that resulted from their victim’s enslavement and damages for any injuries. In the United States, restitution to trafficking victims is mandatory in criminal cases. Effective and early seizure of a trafficker’s assets can sometimes help ensure that restitution is not just ordered, but in fact paid. Of course, there will be times when a trafficker will not be able to pay what is owed to the victim. In such cases, a government can take steps to ensure that the burden of the loss and injury does not fall solely on the victim. Crime victim compensation programs can be established to help remedy at least some of the loss.

Clearing the Way

Working together with a wide range of partners, governments can set up a system of protection and support services that help victims along every step of their journey, from the moment they are identified as trafficking victims, to the delivery of care for their immediate injuries, to the transition support and long-term services. Partnerships help these efforts succeed.

Governments alone have authority over certain regulatory, structural, and environmental factors. For example, a shelter may be equipped to provide continuing, long-term support for victims. But if a country’s trafficking law mandates that individuals can obtain services only for a limited period of time or that services are wholly contingent upon cooperation with authorities, victims may not receive essential long-term care. Even when training, education, and job placement programs may be available, immigration laws can prohibit a migrant victim from working legally and taking those next steps forward. Conversely, citizen victims risk exclusion if victim-care structures are designed only for foreign victims.

All over the world, however, laws and regulations hinder NGOs and well-intentioned government officials from providing the services that victims need. These obstacles may be unintentional, such as existing laws designed to deal with other issues that inadvertently affect a government’s attempt to confront trafficking. They may reflect attitudes toward particular groups—such as immigrants, people in prostitution, persons with disabilities, or LGBT individuals—that fail to recognize that modern slavery occurs among all groups, including the stigmatized or marginalized. Governments should do whatever is necessary to make sure no law, policy, or regulation prevents a trafficker from being prosecuted, or a victim from being identified and becoming a survivor.

The Survivor’s Voice: Guiding the Way Forward

The approaches and practices that this Report recommends are not a panacea for the challenge of modern slavery, nor do they offer a perfect solution for what trafficked persons need. The search for those answers is what continues to drive the fight against modern slavery forward.

In this fight, survivors play a vital role in finding better solutions. Those who have made the journey from victim to survivor have done so in ways as unique as each individual and his or her own experience.

More than a few survivors have chosen to refocus their talents, their passions, and their experiences back into the struggle against modern slavery.

Survivors run shelters, advocate before legislatures, train law enforcement officials, and meet with presidents and prime ministers to push for a more robust response to this crime. No one can explain the barbarity of modern slavery as well as someone who has endured it, and no one can better evaluate what works and what does not as governments and partners come to the aid of those still in bondage. It has been inspiring to see survivors seemingly set apart by the differences of their cases find the commonality of their experiences and forge a new understanding of a crime that they best comprehend.

In addition to helping victims on their journeys to become survivors, governments can also benefit from opening the door to them as experts, colleagues, policymakers, and advocates.

The stories of those survivors—the stories of all survivors—are living, breathing reminders of why governments must live up to their responsibility to combat this serious crime in all its forms. If a survivor-turned-advocate had been misidentified and treated as a criminal, perhaps today she would not be working for the freedom of more who are enslaved. If a survivor who was reunited with his family was instead deported back to the country where he was originally exploited, perhaps today he would not be working to give his children a bright future. If survivors who were treated with respect and understanding were instead viewed as pariahs and forced out on the streets, perhaps today they would once again be victims.

This Report has in the past noted the legacy of Frederick Douglass. A hero of the abolitionist movement, Douglass effected change not only through his compelling accounts of life as an enslaved child servant and farmworker, but also through his activism and advocacy. Fittingly, it was this survivor of slavery who became one of the United States’ first African-American ambassadors and advocated for women’s rights. He also accurately predicted that slavery could reappear if governments left vulnerable migrants unprotected.

Sadly, for every inspiring story of a survivor who has moved past his or her exploitation, there will be too many untold stories of victims unidentified, re-traumatized, jailed, or worse. For the global struggle against modern slavery to succeed, there must be more stories of men and women finishing their journey.

The journey to becoming a survivor will become a reality for more victims only if many others walk on that path alongside them, whether law enforcement officials, advocates, ministers, or lawmakers. When the burden is shared and when the course points toward a common goal, more lives will be restored, and slowly, exploitation and enslavement will give way to justice, opportunity, and freedom.