Victim protection must be a critical component of any government’s anti-trafficking efforts. It serves to meet the immediate needs of victims and to cultivate their long-term potential as they reintegrate. It also strengthens the ability of justice systems to identify and prosecute traffickers. Truly comprehensive victim protection involves much more than signing onto the Palermo Protocol and having a set of protections that exist only in the law books. It must extend to proactive victim identification, funding for comprehensive services that reflect lessons learned from survivors, immigration and sheltering programs that empower survivors by giving them choices, and legal guarantees that protect all classes of workers.
Proactive Victim Identification
Many governments provide training to law enforcement on victim identification and then expect that law enforcement will encounter trafficking victims in the course of their regular duties as though by chance. The reality is far different. Victims typically cannot describe what they’ve been through in simple language, much less the technical terms of the Palermo Protocol or their national legislation; they rarely self-identify. Trafficking by its very nature continues to be one of the world’s most hidden crimes, and it may also be one of the most misinterpreted crimes, with officers incorrectly classifying trafficking cases as assault, alien harboring, and prostitution, or not even recognizing that a crime has been committed.
Governments must provide incentives to police and other law enforcement to look purposefully for human trafficking and proactively investigate trafficking indicators. Some successful strategies have included proactive investigations in prostitution markets, targeting of workplaces where labor offenses have been persistent, and regular inspection of businesses that get many of their workers on guestworker visas. But law enforcement cannot be the only responders. Health care professionals, teachers, labor inspectors, immigration authorities, and child welfare advocates all have the potential to identify trafficking victims and intercede on their behalf. For them, being proactive means being aware that modern slavery can happen to anyone and seeing beyond cultural stereotypes and xenophobia. Governments must provide and, even better, should mandate training for all those entities that may come into contact with victims from the broadest potential victim populations.
One of the most likely populations to include trafficking victims is irregular migrants. Many such migrants come into contact with law enforcement, whether they are apprehended during an illegal entry or are arrested in interior enforcement operations and processed for deportation. Victim identification in this vulnerable population is lacking. Sentinel surveillance conducted by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) at the Thailand-Cambodia border suggests that one of every three workers deported from Thailand is a trafficking victim, having been subjected to conditions during their time in-country that satisfy the Palermo Protocol definition. The statistic is startling but reflects anecdotal evidence from around the world, including in the United States: victims are being arrested and deported, both knowingly or unknowingly. But if trafficking stories are exposed only after potential victims are administratively processed, deported to their country of origin, and barred from re-entry, it is too late for an investigation, too late for rehabilitation, and too late for prevention. The “3Ds” of denial, detention, and deportation are the antithesis of the modern “3P” approach.
Depending on the needs of individual victims, services required for recovery may include any or all of the following: medical care; emergency and transitional housing with long-term housing assistance; mental health counseling; job training and placement; family location and reunification; translation and interpretation; advocacy in the criminal justice system; spiritual support; criminal, civil and immigration legal assistance; safety planning; and repatriation. While this list is long and daunting, dedicated NGOs worldwide have been refining their approaches, techniques, and services. They are both prepared and well-qualified to deliver this range of assistance. But what they often lack is financial support from host governments to be fully operational or to offer the full range of services that survivors need.
NGOs also are sometimes hampered in the types of assistance they can offer because their ability to serve their clients may be tied to programs that are conditioned on the victim cooperating with law enforcement. Even governments with “reflection periods” that seek to allow victims time to stabilize before they have to make the decision to cooperate have made a policy choice that a decision-point will eventually come. But when victims are simply put on hold without the right to work or to leave a shelter while the days tick by, the reflection period becomes indistinguishable from incarceration, proving what the trafficker may have told them would happen if they were discovered by the authorities. Optimally, services would be available for victims who are willing to cooperate, even if their cooperation is not needed or their case does not go forward, and special provisions would be put in place for children and people who are unable to participate in proceedings because of trauma or injury. A survivor’s critical decision to tell the truth and see his or her abuser brought to justice must be made from a position of stability.
Laws to Protect Domestic and Agricultural Workers
Domestic workers and agricultural workers are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. Domestic workers are isolated and invisible within the communities in which they are held behind closed doors. They are invisible within legal structures, typically not covered by labor protections and inspection regimes. Too often, domestic work is not regarded as work at all.
While multiple efforts are underway to bring domestic workers under the umbrella of international protections, including through the ILO, agricultural workers continue to find themselves beyond the reach of labor laws.