The Criminalisation of Human Trafficking Survivors

Human trafficking survivors face societal stigma when escaping the grips of their traffickers and re-entering into society. Using an objective definition of human trafficking, survivors are not recognised as victims but rather criminals themselves. Without sufficient support infrastructure, survivors are left in the open for further exploitation and abuse, where in some cases re-entering into being trafficked is the only way to guarantee their survival.

Criminalising Human Trafficking Survivors

The power and control which human traffickers exercise force victims to commit crimes they would not, ranging from prostitution to drug possession. It can be argued that the criminal actions of victims are not their own. As they are not a product of their own individual agency. Nor are they themselves criminals, as they have not chosen the actions in which they commit, where to refuse to act criminally is not an option in which victims have. As such the responsibility and the criminalisation of their actions does not belong to them, instead it highlights the extensive exploitation of themselves which traffickers abuse. Victims of human trafficking who find themselves being forced into committing criminal acts are placed in the intersection of being a victim and being a criminal offender, where society views them as criminals themselves. As such victims are at risk of being re-traumatised but also excluded out of society when escaping the grips of their traffickers through their assigned criminal record which hinders their ability in securing safe accommodation, employment, education and other social services. Victims are then left on a lonely road, where they are stuck incapable of controlling the direction of their lives due to financial and social restricted. The result of this social neglect of victims is either where victims return to their human trafficker or they commit crimes, both as means for survival.

The criminalisation of survivors of human trafficking depends solely on social perception. Where the lack of conversation and acceptance when survivors re-enter society confronts survivors with the structural bias which stigmatises the public against those who engage in criminal work associated with trafficking, even those of the victims themselves. The survivors are therefore seen in society to be of a different value or opinion of those who are not survivors of human trafficking, due to their association with criminal acts. Take the United States, for example, whilst the U.S. takes human trafficking to be a grave case of human rights violation societal perception on the acts associated with human trafficking brands them as criminals themselves. The City University of New York details how children engaged in prostitution are taken as criminals rather than victims, where only three states provide immunity from criminal offences to children under 18 who have engaged in prostitution-related offences.

The lack of explicit immunity for children and victims of trafficking who engage in prostitution is set out through the implementation of anti-trafficking policies which prioritise arrests over the welfare of trafficking victims. The impact of such policies are questionable, and the effect which are forced upon survivors is unforgivable. Survivors find themselves being arrested, detained and charged upon acts they were forced to commit. Where in 2019, 91 percent of U.S. trafficking victims were arrested. Cases in New York City show survivors to be detained for up to 24 hours in the booking facility despite the survivors vulnerability. Survivors who are non-citizens are subjected to immigration detention and deportation, where they are often re-captured by traffickers again.

The increased normalised sexual objectification, particularly of women, has been mobilised through social media platforms and the idolisation of figures, such as Andrew Tate. As a result human trafficking has never been easier, specifically forms of sexual exploitation. The prostitution of traffic victims may usually be seen as something which women are forced to participate in, but it is not exclusively reserved for women. Those from minority ethnic groups, refugees and those from the LGBTQI+ community are equally vulnerable and face large amounts of abuse due to the polarisation that is already existing in society towards minorities. Traffickers target vulnerable individuals to exploit, women make up a large portion due to the global gender disparity, but it is important to recognise that all those who are already vulnerable in society are vulnerable to being trafficked.

The exploitation of vulnerability by traffickers is most prominently seen through the refugee crisis, and the desperation which refugees face when trying to survive. Being trafficked is seen as a main route to escape conflict or dictatorships, where in North Korea the exchange and agreements between traffickers and soldiers has mobilised a route to which defectors can enter. Through such they enter into contracts which force prostitution, sexual violence and labour upon defectors in China, who are silenced due to their fear in returning back to the North Korean regime.

Criminalisation of refugees and migrants has elevated the criminalisation of human trafficking victims. Current conversation in the UK highlights the extent of this. The recent small boats bill, which prevents the entering of refugees and migrants who have no prior acceptance into the UK will be detained and asylum will be deem ‘inadmissible’ despite any individuals circumstances. Such a bill breaches the UK obligations to the Refugee Convention, which according to the former prime minister Theresa May will allow ‘genuine victims of modern slavery to be denied support.’ Where the UK is ‘shutting the door to victims who are trafficked.’ The British government describes how stopping boats crossing the channel will stop human trafficking, which commentators such as the UN and Amnesty International have disagreed with, describing how such legislation only pushes human trafficking to be less overt. Instead safe routes for asylum seekers is the only way to mitigate the risk of human trafficking exploitation of asylum seekers vulnerability.

A large contributor to the criminalisation of human trafficking survivors rests inside the societal chosen ignorance taken towards certain forms of human trafficking. For example, it is easier to choose to ignore the exploitation and abuse victims face in forms of forced labour, as products which are produced are cheaper to purchase. Due to the demand of cheap labour, which despite being recognised as illegal, is mobilised through continued purchasing and demand for cheap goods. Criminalising victims therefore is easier to justify purchasing products of forced labour, as it de-values the victims themselves. The fact that the majority of forced labour takes place in poorer countries which have lower standards of human rights separates the majority of consumers from those who are trafficked. This separation is instrumental as consumers are no confronted by the image and fact of forced labour unless they actively look for it. Forced labour is therefore normalised and motivated due to the convenience which it provides those in the increasingly demanding capitalist market.

Recognising that human trafficking comes in various forms not just through force, such as fraud is instrumental in moving survivors from societies perspective of criminals to victims. The risks in not acknowledging that human trafficking is subjective in these forms allows for society to ridicule or shame individuals whose experiences of human trafficking do not match the sole narrative that is taught. As a result many victims don’t recognise themselves as victims. This reduces there experience and trauma by society, where social infrastructure services, such as the police, as well as friends and family discourage victims to talk about there experience due to the stigmatisation that is associated with it. Survivors are marginalised and silenced through the environment in which is supposed to comfort them and support them.

Even in cases where survivors are recognised and identified as victims by the state, federal and state initiatives again prioritise combatting human trafficking through the prosecution of traffickers at the expense of the victims welfare, where there experience is exploited for the benefit of investigations with little to no personal support. Survivors again carry the risks of such prioritisation, where their mental health and welfare deteriorates, relying on any personal support to manage the scars of their experiences being trafficked. Necessary support infrastructure needs to be built to grant the victims of human trafficking the support they deserve in enabling them to gain control over their lives once again, and re-enter society.

Supporting Survivors through Change

Importantly providing support for human trafficking survivors is not short term, nor is it objective. A common approach used to not just human trafficking survivors, but others who have experienced abuse, is defining what abuse and exploitation looks like in only one stream. Creating an educational space and awareness for the subjectivity of what human trafficking looks like helps survivors themselves and society identify them as victims. Approaching the topic of human trafficking and forms of exploitation to children and young adults is difficult due to the violence and abuse which it details. However this education is necessary to help create a society which trafficking victims are understood and recognised, as well as protected. Education and awareness should not be exclusive to children and young adults, but also adults, decision makers and social support workers themselves. Communicating the risks and abuse which survivors have faced, helps de-stigmatise and humanise survivors of human trafficking which otherwise are seen as unequal and criminal.

Suggestions for decision makers moving forward from the Red Cross:

  • Focus on protection rather than investigation
  • Separate from immigration enforcement
  • Ensured level of minimum service
  • Access to necessary recourses
  • A first step to safety procedure

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