No one chooses to be trafficked. Yet in many ways limited choices force individuals to enter, remain in, or return to situations of exploitation. Despite being a fundamental component to reducing vulnerability, victimization, and revictimization, the need to broaden the choices available to vulnerable individuals often is not realized.
Choice and Choices
Inherent in the very definition of human trafficking is an individual’s circumstantial inability to make a free choice regarding his or her state of being. This is not to say that the trafficking victim is not capable of making choices for themselves, but that there are few or no viable options for exiting the trafficking situation. Solving this choice problem would essentially solve the problem of trafficking, but that is both unrealistic and beyond what could possibly be covered by this post. Assessing the factors behind this lack of choices, however, is a more accessible venture, yet still provides the potential for profound insight in combating trafficking.
Although individuals are forced or coerced into trafficking in various ways, many victims arrive in trafficking via an initial choice, and often it is choices that result in them remaining in – or returning to – a trafficking situation. This choice, however, is rooted not in preference, but in lack of alternatives. Lack of choices in their home country is the reason many individuals respond to disreputable promises of work abroad. Lack of choices is why many migrants in forced labor remain in such situations. Lack of choices is also why victims of sex trafficking often return to situations of exploitation even if they are no longer actively being trafficked. How to remedy this dearth of choices can be considered at the various stages of trafficking – before, during, and after exploitation.
Individuals enter trafficking by various means, but the majority do so by pursuing an opportunity founded on deception or coercion, which then leads to exploitation. This is seen when individuals respond to job advertisements, particularly for positions abroad, only to later discover that they are actually being exploited in labor trafficking. One possible solution for this is the creation of certified, monitored job boards that would verify all postings to ensure legitimacy and reduce risk of exploitation. Other individuals find themselves victims of forced labor due to financial difficulties that seem impossible to remedy apart from entering some form of debt bondage. Deeper social safety nets, thus providing for the basic needs of individuals, would reduce desperation, and concurrently decrease the number of individuals willing to enter into coercive labor contracts.
Leaving Trafficking Situations
Seemingly, the most challenging stage in which to introduce alternatives is when a person is being actively trafficked. In fact, sustained efforts are already being made to give these victims alternative choices. Primarily, this is done through outreach and awareness campaigns created to provide this population with the information necessary to obtain assistance in extricating themselves from the situation. While such efforts bear fruit, it is necessary to find more diverse methods to reach a greater number of victims with options for getting out of their ongoing exploitative situation.
A Vicious Cycle
Unfortunately, even once individuals are removed from a situation of trafficking or exploitation, their options for where to turn next can be extremely limited. Victims of transnational labor trafficking may find themselves illegally in a country, with the choices being to remain in the exploitative situation, face detrimental consequences for their illegal work, or be deported to their home country, where their options were already severely constricted. Programs such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s immigration relief provide alternatives for those who wish to escape trafficking without being deported for illegal stay in the destination country. Expanding the scope of such programs would increase victims’ options, reducing the likelihood of them remaining in a situation of exploitation in order to avoid negative repercussions.
Victims of sex trafficking, whether exploited domestically or internationally, are in a situation further complicated due to the stigma often attached to working in prostitution. Many in this sector are trafficked at a young age, even as children, meaning that their education may have been cut short, and they lack the qualifications for work in other fields. Many NGOs seek to meet this need by providing shelter, employment, or education to create options for those who were previously victims of sex trafficking. Despite the successful work done by many such organizations, the type of vocational training or employment they provide can be limited, and their scale insufficient for the magnitude of the trafficking problem.
Given societal, cultural, educational, and experiential limitations, no one can truly control the choices available to them. However, the dignity of the individual demands that everyone, trafficking victims included, be provided with choices beyond those that lead to exploitation. Making the creation of choices an integral element of comprehensive anti-trafficking programs could significantly lessen vulnerability to trafficking and revictimization, and increase removals from trafficking situations, leading to an effective reduction in the overall prevalence of human trafficking.
*Bernadette Recznik is a Master of Public and International Affairs Candidate at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. This blog is the first of a collaborative series with the University of Pittsburgh resulting from a course on human trafficking taught by Professor Luke N. Condra.