Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Moving forward: life after trafficking

What happens after someone ‘stops’ being trafficked?

Denise Brennan Sine Plambech
16 April 2019, 8.00am
Painting a boat in Indonesia.
Patrik M. Loeff/Flickr. cc (by-nc-nd).

Spectacular stories of life in trafficking saturate the media, political speeches, and NGO fundraising campaigns. With so much focus on stories of brutality, or of dramatic escapes and rescues, there has been little attention to what happens after trafficking. The tenth issue of the Anti-Trafficking Review shines a light on trafficking outcomes – not just for those labelled as trafficked by state actors or the NGO sector but also for those whose exploitation garnered no legal protections or service provision.

The issue puts centre stage the challenges and successes after trafficking that largely have unfolded off stage. It points to contradictions, slippages, missed opportunities, and failings. It introduces cases of life after trafficking in countries with robust anti-trafficking legal and care regimes, and in those offering little or no assistance. Regardless of the context, this special issue shows that by taking back control of one’s life, and tending to ordinary tasks and chores of resettlement, formerly trafficked persons move beyond the extraordinary cruelty of forced labour.

Labour purgatory: exploited but not trafficked

Although some cases of exploitation are so extreme that they easily fall on the far end of a continuum of exploitation, many others are not so clear cut. In such situations of almost trafficking, migrants experience abuse, just not enough to qualify as ‘trafficked’. This is the norm on many low-wage worksites where migrant labour predominates. It’s a type of ‘labour purgatory’, as Brennan terms it.

At the same time, some of those who qualify for the label of ‘trafficked’ – and who receive benefits related to this designation – do not see themselves as exploited. These cases demonstrate how anti-trafficking legal frameworks, policies, and programmes at times reflect and respond to political imperatives more than migrant workers’ actual experiences. Who gets helped hinges on how we measure harms against workers. As Anderson and O’Connell Davidson observe, there is no “universal yardstick against which ‘exploitation’ can be measured”.

Globally speaking, extremely few people have ever been designated ‘trafficked’ and offered official assistance. One reason for this is that governments lack the political will to tackle the widespread exploitation undergirding industries like agriculture and domestic work. There are many stakeholders who benefit from normalising migrant exploitation; sometimes entire industries rely on low wages. To designate the workers within these industries as trafficked would be to indict the common practice of leveraging migrants’ insecure immigration status to lower their working conditions and wages. Acknowledging trafficking makes visible capitalism run amuck and the link between migrants’ legal status and exploitation. This is in neither business’s nor government’s interest.

A strong line is thus drawn discursively between trafficked people, who are seen as worthy of assistance, and undocumented migrants, who are to be incarcerated or deported. Yet, as Plambech and others point out, that line is often murky in practice. Even on the same worksite, those working under coercive conditions may labour side by side with workers who have a marginal ability to leave. It is even more difficult to measure exploitation across industries and nations. The result? What counts as trafficking varies wildly and many exploited individuals are left without any assistance.

Trafficking assistance in an anti-migrant era

Assistance takes many forms. It could mean staying in the country where one was trafficked, or being returned home forcibly or voluntarily. Even when trafficked persons are offered legal protections these can be difficult to access. For example, legislation in Europe and the United States clearly stipulates that trafficked persons have the right to receive temporary residence and work permits. The overly bureaucratic procedures of determining who is a victim, however, make them difficult to obtain. The numbers say it all. In the United States, fewer than 10,000 T visas, which allow trafficking survivors to remain in the country, have been issued in the 18 years that they have been available, even though the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 allows for 5000 to be issued annually.

Similarly in the EU, a little over half of identified victims of trafficking from non-EU countries were granted residence permits in 2011–2012. In the UK, in 2015, the decision whether a person was trafficked and could access rights and entitlements was positive in more than 80% of cases of EU nationals, who have the legal right to be in the country, and below 50% for non-EU nationals. What this data points to is that while governments in affluent countries profess a determination to combat trafficking and protect victims, they are not so eager to allow non-residents to remain on their territory.

Anti-trafficking programmes are premised on an assumption of sedentariness – that migrants will stay in their home communities once they are returned to them.

The alternative to staying in the country of exploitation is a return to one’s home country, or the country where one holds legal status. Returns – either forced or voluntary – can be fraught for returnees, their families and communities, and those overseeing their resettlement. Returns may deliver people to a ‘home’ that feels unwelcoming. Family reunifications can be difficult, anxiety-filled, and disappointing family members left behind and migrants/trafficked persons alike.

Trafficked persons can have difficulty trusting others again, as well as regaining trust of loved ones. Not being able to tell friends and family about what they endured can be isolating and stressful. Debt often exacerbates the situation, as returning prematurely often means facing family members, loan sharks, or banks empty-handed. Many are ashamed to reunite with no money or other material goods. Reconnecting with children who have grown in their absence can be particularly challenging. Children may live with dread and worry that their parent might leave again. Similarly, anti-trafficking programmes are premised on an assumption of sedentariness – that migrants will stay in their home communities once they are returned to them. Yet returns do not necessarily ‘heal the social body’ by repairing those who were ‘uprooted’. Just as frequently, returns can re-illuminate the factors that led to out-migration in the first place.

Post-trafficking programmes that offer reintegration funds are more impressive on paper than in reality. Often paid out long after returnees have resettled and have bills due, reintegration funds do not stretch far enough to cover their many costs. There are also competing pressures – and actors – pushing survivors on how their funds should be spent. They must weigh whether to focus on their own household, such as investing in their children’s education or a family business, or to help parents and other family members. To do both is rarely an option.

There is pressure on survivors to present themselves as ‘good victims’, worthy of reintegration assistance. For example, Plambech has observed that Nigerian women receiving reintegration assistance frequently visit NGOs to show off their neatly kept accounting books, in the hopes that more financial assistance would be forthcoming. In this way, being slotted in the category of ‘trafficking victim’ can lead to benefits. But it also requires constant vigilance to keep up particular appearances and to fulfilling particular expectations.

What does success look like?

It’s an open secret in anti-trafficking circles that despite all the attention given to trafficking, very little money is actually spent on victim assistance. Nor are existing assistance programmes monitored and evaluated in a robust way.

Trafficked people face life after trafficking by and large on their own. They struggle to gain an economic footing while also coping with memories of past abuses and present-day debts. At the same time, survivors insist that they are not held back by or defined by their past. But willing themselves forward is not enough. We need more robust policies and programmes that support trafficking survivors over a longer period of time – and with fewer strings attached.

An unremarkable yet safe daily life is the strongest sign that survivors have turned a corner.

What might success after trafficking look like? Finally being able to travel to see family would, for many, be a major turning point. Saving money and putting future plans into place is another milestone. Managing family demands to send remittances is critical to moving forward financially – and to resetting family dynamics of obligation, debt, and, possibly, guilt. Deciding what forms of social assistance to seek – and when – puts survivors in charge of their lives. Finally, an unremarkable yet safe daily life is perhaps the strongest sign that survivors have turned a corner. A daily life free from abuse, threat and fear characterises moving forward after trafficking.

Life after trafficking in the Anti-Trafficking Review

Several of the contributing authors to our special issue on life after trafficking have condensed their work down for publication on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, and their work will be published all this week. The authors in this issue offer perspectives on life after trafficking that are not often portrayed in the media or politicians’ speeches.

Erlend Paasche, May-Len Skilbrei and Sine Plambech illustrate the ways in which life after trafficking is determined by the anti-immigrant politics sweeping across most of Europe. The authors examine how humanitarian anti-trafficking interventions and anti-immigration policies affect the way Norway returns Nigerian migrants who have been designated ‘trafficked’. They argue that programmes designed to help returnees actually render them more vulnerable, and conclude that policies for returning migrants require a coordinated effort to assist in the reintegration of migrants.

Rebecca Surtees delivers a much-needed perspective on male victims of trafficking by looking at Indonesian labour migrants and their reintegration into their families and communities after being trafficked. Similar to the returned Nigerian migrants, Indonesian men face social tensions as a result of broken relationships and the social stigma of ‘failed’ migration. As Surtees illustrates, the economic costs of failed migration – not being able to repay debt as well as the loss of expected income from migration – were often entangled with and exacerbated by the social costs of not fulfilling family members’ expectations. Through the analytical emphasis on family relations in life after trafficking, this paper points to the importance of the social context into which victims return.

Writing from the perspective of a service providing NGO, Rousseau provides a critical assessment of the efforts to assist victims of trafficking in the Thai fishing industry and to prosecute the people benefitting from their exploitation. As the paper elucidates, trafficking cases are rarely legally recognised as such, which prevents victims from being properly compensated and assisted. A lack of compensation means that the debt incurred by the fishermen’s migration or legal proceedings goes unpaid, thus complicating their reintegration. Rousseau proposes a two-fold strategy for implementing more victim-centred approaches to anti-trafficking assistance which involves enhanced collaboration between civil society and survivors.

Kira West, head of the Danish organisation Reden International (The Nest), shares insights into the various forms of assistance that trafficking survivors need but do not receive from the Danish government, and notes how difficult it is to improve protection in a context where the police are seen as the adversaries of informal migrants and sex workers. Similarly, Kate Roberts from the Human Trafficking Foundation argues that despite the adoption of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, the majority of victims of trafficking in the UK are not provided adequate aid and protection. She posits that the simultaneous attempt to curb immigration and combat trafficking and exploitation creates a situation where the question of an ‘ideal life’ after trafficking is rendered irrelevant, since the challenge for most trafficked persons is merely continued survival.

For many other articles on life after trafficking, including the voices of survivors themselves and their experiences resuming their lives after trafficking, see the complete issue 10 of the Anti-Trafficking Review.

A longer version of this introductory article appeared first in Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 10.

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