Vulnerability to Human Trafficking and a Framework for Anti-Trafficking Action

11 September 2020
Research Innovation

Patricia Hynes  | Reader, University of Bedfordshire

Between October 2017 and January 2018, the University of Bedfordshire and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) organized a series of Shared Learning Events in Albania, Viet Nam and Nigeria to understand contexts for human trafficking to the United Kingdom. Subsequently, we conducted a primarily qualitative study and published a final report titled, “Between Two Fires“. In this piece, I discuss the report’s 12 key findings and distill its recommendations for each into a framework for action in human trafficking work. These recommendations were developed during the analysis phase, and are based on discussions of actual or aspirational actions that could enhance human trafficking work. The level of resources available was consistently raised as a necessary consideration as was the gap in services around rehabilitation and recovery and the pressing need to address this aspect of trafficking. The report was complimented by a literature review, which found a significant gap in literature exploring the perspectives of individuals who have experienced human trafficking.

Key Findings

While there has been much focus on individual level factors around age and gender within broadly defined contexts of poverty in the past, the first finding highlighted how individual level vulnerabilities were firmly embedded within broader family, community and structural factors, and were influenced by a constellation of overlapping and interconnected risks rather than single factor explanations. Akin to ecological models originally developed by Bronfenbrenner (1979) to explain the way in which the immediate and surrounding environment affects child development, the use of IOM’s Determinants of Migrant Vulnerability model allowed for each of these layers to be investigated and analysed. For example, detailed contextual descriptions of factors at the household and family level appeared to be particularly significant in the lives of interviewees, including the socio-economic status of a person’s family, family debt, family history and gender roles within the family. Critiques of ecological models as being highly static were addressed through the use of a political economy analysis to understand historical, political, economic and structural factors within Albania, Viet Nam and Nigeria as well as past migration patterns.

The second finding addressed how harmful social norms and practices exist and intersect with human trafficking, often in a gender-specific way. These included early and forced marriage as well as access to educational or livelihood opportunities. The latter were, in many cases, part of how women and girls sought to avoid or resist ‘vulnerabilities’ by seeking opportunities to leave their household or community, thereby sometimes increasing the risk of accepting offers from people offering to facilitate this process. Nevertheless, access to education was not a panacea with some survivors holding higher education degrees. Relatedly, finding three revealed how limited financial, educational, employment or healthcare provision created a mismatch between an individual or family’s opportunities and their aspirations. Hope and the desire for safer futures was a recurring theme across all countries, which often entailed accepting risks or hardships in the short term.

Finding four found that although decisions to migrate began with rational decision-making, they were  often based on limited or unreliable information. Migration trajectories could become progressively precarious with individuals facing new and rapidly changing vulnerabilities, such as violence, extortion, lack of food or water, being arbitrarily detained and sometimes death. People were thus rendered ‘vulnerable’ en-route, in part due to migration regimes which enforced invisibility.  The fifth finding showed the way in which religious beliefs, luck and divine power appeared to influence attitudes towards risk and the willingness to embark on journeys.

Finding six revealed how stigma can be both a driver and an outcome of trafficking and exploitation. For example, we found that having divorced parents, being divorced, having a child out of wedlock and domestic violence were sometimes sources of shame and stigma that contributed to accepting offers for opportunities elsewhere. In Viet Nam, for example, stigma towards people who were in debt or who were perceived to have “failed” in the migration attempts led to discrimination from both family and community members. The fear of suffering such stigma and discrimination was used as a means of coercion and control, keeping people in exploitative situations and adversely impacting their opportunities for recovery post-exploitation.

There were mixed views from survivors about the effectiveness of awareness-raising efforts to prevent trafficking. Finding seven looked at how some survivors focused on the limitations and appropriateness of awareness-raising approaches within contexts of limited opportunities and an absence of credible alternatives.

Findings eight to eleven are specific to the United Kingdom. Finding eight showed how some Vietnamese nationals had not been identified as ‘victims’ within the UK criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems. Finding nine addressed the negative impact of waiting times within National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and asylum systems. Finding ten explored how committed and dedicated country-specific community-based organizations were providing essential support without government funding and outside NRM structures. Such culturally informed care in a survivor’s own language is key to meaningful recovery. This relates to finding eleven, which demonstrated how the recovery process for victims of trafficking requires a long-term approach with a diverse and multi-agency range of services and assistance provided over an extended duration to ensure trust is built between support staff and survivors.

The final finding was that “good practice” is not defined and is almost absent from debates around human trafficking in all countries considered in the study. We also found in the literature review that there was limited evidence available regarding good practice and a lack of agreement on what may or may not constitute “good practice”, with a need for more critical analysis of how effectiveness is being assessed within specific legislative and policy contexts.

Figure 1: A framework for action in human trafficking work

A Framework for Action

As Ligia Kiss and Cathy Zimmerman note regarding the importance of using existing know-how to tackle modern slavery, a public health prevention approach could be used to address the challenges of this field. There is also a wealth of “what works” findings from across a range of other complex social problems, such as violence against women and children, that can assist those working to combat human trafficking. Also, as Katharine Bryant and Todd Landman have suggested, anti-trafficking work has paid inconsistent attention to monitoring, evaluation and impact assessments that track the achievement of outcomes or impact.

We found a number of pockets of what could be considered emerging, promising and/or good practice but most were yet to be evaluated, making their actual impact difficult to ascertain. There was a range of views on what a successful short-, medium- or long-term outcome might look like in practice. For example, in the UK, respondents noted that having someone simply not go “missing” from a service was an indicator of short-term success. In Nigeria, discussions often focused on prevention to address economic, employment and educational realities. Strengthening universal services and including trafficking in child protection and programs combatting violence against women and children were highlighted as key to changing the contexts within which traffickers operate. Across all countries there was some recognition of the importance of providing supportive environments wherein ‘survivors’ feel listened to and able to disclose abuses and exploitation to improve identification and criminal justice processes. Key informants working closely with survivors also raised the necessity of prevention strategies targeting poverty alleviation, gender equity and health and educational improvements. Victim-centred skills-training approaches were highlighted in the interviews, with traditional interventions around skills such as sewing, baking and hairdressing being substituted with more marketable skills such as ICT, coding and computer training.

Overall, across the four countries under study, a framework for action in human trafficking work could span universal, targeted and specialist services to allow for situational prevention, protection, prosecutions and recovery. Figure 1 details this framework, which pays attention to increases in individual contact, resources required, existing efforts found during data analysis based on the historical 3Ps framework (prosecution, protection and prevention) and aspirations for improvements within the countries of the study.

This article has been prepared by Patricia Hynes as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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