Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Meet trafficking survivors where they are, not where you wish them to be

Real survivor engagement means embracing diversity, rather than just platforming individuals who tick all the boxes

Azadi Kenya
20 February 2023, 8.00am

A tea plantation in Kenya


Joerg Boethling/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

You’d be forgiven for thinking that engaging survivors of trafficking around matters that concern them is standard practice. After all, as one north African writer put it, policies and programmes should not be "what we think [survivors] need but what [survivors] know they need''. But it’s not as common as you might hope.

We at Azadi Kenya, a survivor-led organisation that provides long-term support and capacity development for survivors of trafficking, recently worked with the University of Liverpool to assess the nature and effectiveness of survivor engagement in anti-trafficking. We see this as essential work, as only by understanding current engagement can we ensure that new policies and programmes are in sync with the evolving needs of survivors.

Unfortunately, we found many hindrances to the full and meaningful engagement of survivors. We would like to walk you through a few of them now.

Constraining time

Time-delimited projects and funding require implementers to be efficient. One perception we encountered among groups working in this area was that survivor engagement slows down work. There was a belief that survivors often lack the necessary skills while also needing extra care. The fear accompanying this perception was that accommodating both uses up valuable time.

As one migration consultant working for a major international organisation explained, the ‘help me help you approach’ elongated the process and made it difficult to follow timelines. It also risked retraumatising survivors, which could lengthen the process even further.

We acknowledge that lived experience impacts survivors differently, and triggers can be random and unprecedented. But to not engage with them means viewing survivors as without agency, merit, and capacity. That is a major problem.

It is essential to have clear structures in place to ensure that the wellbeing of survivors is maintained

One can start addressing these concerns by implementing trauma-informed approaches and safeguarding measures in the workplace. These significantly reduce the chances of causing harm, which means that allies and other people working in the space can engage survivors with confidence (and speed). Furthermore, for survivor engagement to be both empowering and meaningful, it is essential to have clear structures in place to ensure that the wellbeing of survivors is maintained.

One such structure is a clearly articulated list of responsibilities and duties that survivors are expected to undertake during engagement. This would allow survivors to get assistance early where they need it, while also tailoring their work to their strengths and interests. Done at the outset, this would prevent a skills deficit from upsetting progress later on down the road. Structures and measures like these would ensure that survivors can not only reclaim their agency, but also be meaningfully engaged in the space.

Excluding those who ‘don’t fit’

A second major barrier to meaningful engagement was the over-representation of one particular group of survivors: women who have endured sex trafficking. Most of the available data and research is also about this group.

Treating this specific group of survivors as representative of the entire community drastically limits the types of interventions, engagements, and voices that are viewed as important. It also directs policy and public perception in one particular direction, to the neglect of others. "You begin to realise that when we talk of human trafficking it’s not just about women being trafficked for sexual exploitation," is how a regional director for an NGO in west Africa put it.

One of the biggest groups of survivors lost to this focus on women sex trafficking survivors is men. This is in part because they rarely see themselves in such terms. Under African gender norms, men are taught to work hard, and they often don’t recognise that they’re being trafficked. If they do, they will often choose not to speak up. To do so would go against their tradition or be seen as weak.

Accordingly, patriarchy and gender norms were quoted as two main reasons for the low number of male survivors in the anti-trafficking movement. The space is theoretically open to them, but getting them across the threshold is challenging. Due to the same gender norms, women are seen as more vulnerable and the space is thus more open to their participation.

It’s easy to stick to what you know, so doors must be consciously opened

Other mundane aspects can also act as exclusionary gatekeepers when it comes to survivor engagement. Language, for example, is for many an issue of practicality – being unable to communicate with people across borders makes work inherently difficult. It is also a source of prejudice, as intelligence is often equated with the ability to speak English or another major European language. This is naturally quite problematic and Eurocentric as it excludes a massive cohort of survivors from participating.

Not opening up the space to survivors from different types of lived experience and different identities mean that we are limiting what this space could be, who it could represent, and what it could do for survivors all over the world. It’s easy to stick to what you know, so doors must be consciously opened to non-cis women, religious and ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalised groups. Their voices matter just as much. It is therefore important to look at the region and work to include a greater variety of perspectives.

Putting labels before people

Anti-trafficking, like many fields, has its own lingo: victim, survivor, survivor leader, modern slavery, human trafficking, etc. These terms are widely used, sometimes confused, and, for survivors, can be difficult to relate to. A regional consultant working on migration-related policies in Africa observed that even some professionals don't know the difference between the terms, and that most people, survivors included, have conflated understandings of some of them.

Programming must embrace self-identification and adapt to it, rather than be stumped by it

Insisting that certain people identify with those labels can be damaging; individuals can be excluded from services because they refuse to identify with a particular term. Many survivors cannot relate to the field’s terminology. But they do understand their experiences. One example we heard was of an orphan who had been forced to drop out of school to look after children and work for a relative. They did not view their experience within the scope of the definitions given, but they could recognise what they went through and the impact it had on them.

Seeing the underlying similarity without insisting on conforming to one box or the other is essential, otherwise cultural contexts, understandings, and ways of self-identification become void. Engagement in policy and programming must embrace self-identification and adapt to it, rather than be stumped by it. We think that a regional director of an NGO in West Africa summed up the solution perfectly: “you can call it whatever, but once we agree we are referring to the same thing, then we are good to go.”

Opening a closed space

Throughout our research, we have found that the anti-trafficking space is generally not open to survivors, or at least not all survivors. A lot of capacity building and mental shifts are required to build awareness on the importance of survivor engagement and then to make it commonplace.

Agreeing to open the space up to survivors must be the common thread of all of these endeavours. This means including more people with lived experience from all categories of trafficking, identities, and self-identifications. Keeping the pool closed and specific does the movement – not to mention the survivors – a great disservice. But by creating safe spaces where survivors can engage meaningfully, we support survivors to thrive while utilising their inherent expertise to inform interventions, encourage change, and move the anti-trafficking sector to be more survivor-centred.

While we recognise that survivor inclusion is lacking in many ways, we also see that the space is changing. For instance, our participation in this study means that survivors with first-hand knowledge were able to impact the trajectory of original research. That’s new, and that’s progress. At Azadi, we are intentional about building a community of survivor leaders who will impact society and create a culture that includes and is driven by survivor leaders. Our hope is that this study will impact the ways in which survivors are engaged in the anti-trafficking space moving forward.

This article was produced as part of the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre’s (Modern Slavery PEC) study on survivor engagement in international policy and programming, conducted by the University of Liverpool as a consortium partner of the Centre. To learn more, read the author's full regional report. The research was funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). It took place between February-June 2022.

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