Assisting Male Survivors of Human Trafficking
The most frequently cited global statistics on human trafficking indicate that men and boys represent nearly half of the total number of human trafficking victims; yet the identification and proper care of male victims remains an enormous challenge to governments and care providers around the world. Too often, men and boys go unidentified and remain in perilous situations, deprived of their freedom. When they do escape their trafficking situations, they are likely to be neglected by governments and service providers whose programs were established to shelter and assist women and girls. Instead of being treated as exploited individuals, they are at greater risk of being penalized or fined for offenses, such as crossing a border illegally, or of facing charges and imprisonment for crimes committed as a result of being subjected to trafficking.
Male victims of forced labor have been found in nearly all work sectors, including mining, forestry, construction, health care, factories, hospitality, and agriculture. Recent investigative reports have documented the severe abuse of men on fishing boats in Southeast Asia for years at a time and the exploitation of boys in forced labor on fishing vessels on Ghana’s Lake Volta. In addition, there have been recent reports of men forced to work in construction in Qatar as it prepares for the 2022 World Cup and in agriculture in the United Kingdom and the United States. Around the world, the sex trafficking of boys and men continues to be hidden and underreported, and there is a severe shortage of programs to meet their needs. For example, reports have documented boys sold into sex trafficking in Afghanistan, including for bacha baazi, where men use young boys for social and sexual entertainment. In the United States, men and boys are exploited in commercial sex.
Recent research has documented the physical and mental health impact of human trafficking on men and boys who may have experienced physical and sexual abuse and threats of violence, deprivation of basic nutrition and sanitation, and loss of freedom of movement. Despite experiencing such conditions, male survivors often do not initially see themselves as having been the victim of the crime of forced labor. Instead they are likely to view their labor trafficking situation as bad luck, their own “gullibility,” or a “normal” consequence of labor migration. This is reinforced by commonly accepted or traditional gender roles or stereotypes in which men are expected to stand up for themselves and provide for their families. In addition, authorities, such as immigration officers, labor inspectors, and police, often do not recognize male victims due to biases or the tendency to perceive males as less vulnerable to human trafficking or erroneously view human trafficking as exclusively the sex trafficking of girls and women.
Most programs established to assist trafficking victims do not focus on meeting male survivors’ needs. In many countries, even when authorities identify a male trafficking victim, there are few anti-trafficking programs able to provide men or boys specialized assistance, especially safe housing.
Male survivors of trafficking need access to comprehensive and culturally appropriate assistance to meet their needs, such as housing, medical care, mental health services, legal support, and employment assistance, offered through centers that tailor services to individuals, for example:
Housing. Access to housing that is safe and has resources to meet their unique needs. The use of homeless shelters is often inadequate for traumatized male survivors.
Health. Access to a wide range of trauma-informed physical and mental health services, including alternatives to traditional care such as peer-to-peer counseling.
Legal Support. Access to legal support to ensure male survivors are aware of their rights, have access to legal proceedings, and are assisted in contacting consular services from their home country and seeking compensation for lost wages and injuries and other forms of restitution.
Employment Assistance. Access to employment assistance that includes education, skills training, and job placement.
While some governments have made progress to improve the anti-trafficking response for male victims, much work remains to ensure men and boys are not overlooked or under-served. Governments should ensure services are sensitive to the needs of all victims, regardless of gender, and adapt methodologies as needed. All trafficking victims should be offered high quality individualized assistance, supported in regaining control of their lives, and empowered to make informed decisions about the options available to them.
Engaging Survivors of Human Trafficking
Survivors play a vital role in combating human trafficking. Survivors should not be seen only as recipients of services; they run organizations, advocate before legislatures, train law enforcement officers, conduct public outreach, and work with government officials. The survivor voice is vital in establishing effective anti-trafficking strategies that address prosecution, protection, and prevention. The appointment of the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking in December 2015 established a formal platform for human trafficking survivors to advise and make recommendations to the federal government on anti-trafficking policies and programs. This marked a significant milestone in the anti-trafficking movement, as it demonstrates both to survivors and governments around the world the importance of survivor engagement in all efforts to combat this crime.
Governments, civil society, and businesses should understand how to engage with survivors appropriately and responsibly, whether within the criminal justice system, through the provision of services, in the adoption and implementation of corporate policies, or in efforts to advocate for social change. The following list, although not exhaustive, delineates several guidelines for meaningful engagement with survivors:
Promote survivor empowerment and self-sufficiency. Survivors of human trafficking should have access to services that are comprehensive, victim-centered, and culturally appropriate, including long-term care, to promote autonomy. Additionally, survivors should have access to vocational training, skill development courses, financial counseling, and educational scholarships.
Use a victim-centered and trauma-informed approach. All engagement with survivors, as well as all anti-trafficking work, should incorporate a victim-centered and trauma-informed approach to minimize re-traumatization and ensure an understanding of the impact of trauma on the individual.
The victim-centered approach seeks to minimize re-traumatization associated with involvement in the criminal justice process by providing the support of victim service providers, empowering survivors as engaged participants in the process, and providing survivors an opportunity to play a role in seeing their traffickers brought to justice.
A trauma-informed approach includes an understanding of the physical, social, and emotional impact of trauma on the individual, as well as on the professionals who help them.
Hire and compensate. Survivors know firsthand how to improve anti-trafficking efforts and should be hired and compensated for their expertise. It is important for agencies and organizations to create opportunities to employ survivors as staff members, consultants, or trainers. Survivors, like any other employee or consultant, deserve financial compensation for their time and expertise.
Incorporate input. Government agencies, victim service providers, law enforcement agencies, non-profit organizations, and businesses should listen carefully to survivor recommendations and incorporate survivor input in both the design and implementation of anti-trafficking policies, programs, trainings, and advocacy efforts.
Protect confidentiality. Agencies and organizations interacting with survivors should protect survivors’ identities and privacy appropriately and establish policies and procedures on confidentiality.
Require participation. Requiring a survivor to participate in a program deprives him or her of autonomy and the right to self-determination. Survivors should be empowered to make their own decisions about the care they would like to receive.
Overpromise. Law enforcement officials, victim service providers, and government agencies should avoid making promises and commitments they cannot keep. In particular, they should not promise services to gain a survivor’s cooperation.
Re-traumatize. When engaging with survivors, do not push them to recount their personal story unnecessarily. Similarly, don’t share the details of a survivor’s story without gaining permission and providing context for how the information will be used.
Sensationalize the individual’s experience. The use of graphic language or shocking imagery to depict human trafficking promotes myths and misconceptions about this crime and can re-traumatize survivors.
Photograph or publish information without consent. It is a survivor’s decision to participate in any outreach, marketing, social media, or publicity efforts. Publishing a survivor’s name or story without their informed consent could compromise the survivor’s safety and well-being. If a survivor is willing, always ask how they would like to be described (e.g., survivor, advocate, etc.) and allow the survivor to review any material for accuracy before publication.
Human Trafficking: A Public Health Perspective
Human trafficking is a crime increasingly associated with other government priorities such as national security, economic stability, migration, and environmental sustainability. It is reported that human trafficking fuels transnational criminal organizations, exacerbates irregular migratory flows, disrupts labor markets, and sustains other harmful, illicit activities through the forced criminality of its victims. Human trafficking can subvert legitimate economic and labor markets and cause a loss of productivity and economic stability for countries. And certain industries known for the use of forced labor also feature practices that wreak significant environmental damage.
In the public health arena, the consequences of human trafficking are even more evident. The circumstances that victims of human trafficking endure often include unsanitary and dangerous work environments, poor living conditions, substandard nutrition, exposure to sexually transmitted and other communicable diseases, and the denial of access to any health care. Victims of trafficking also frequently suffer physical and mental abuse resulting in physical, sexual, and psychological trauma.
For both children and adults, unsanitary and crowded living conditions, coupled with poor nutrition, foster a host of adverse health conditions. In forced labor cases, long hours and hazardous working conditions including poor training, proximity to dangerous chemicals, lack of personal protective equipment, and financial or physical punishment, including sexual assault, can cause or contribute injuries and illnesses. Sex trafficking victims are exposed to pelvic inflammatory disease, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted infections. Human traffickers may force pregnant victims to undergo abortions, usually in unsafe conditions, posing further trauma and health risks. In addition to physical harm suffered, the range of recurrent emotional and psychological abuse victims often experience can lead to a host of disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and panic attacks.
The myriad health conditions victims of human trafficking face are often not treated properly or promptly, if at all. Victims may be barred entirely from seeking medical attention for health issues and from seeking preventive services, such as dental cleanings, annual health screenings, or vaccinations, either by their trafficker or due to a lack of health insurance or money. Unaddressed health issues, which may have been treatable if detected early, can become more aggressive and severely degenerate the individual’s health. Even after leaving a trafficking situation, survivors face health risks and consequences that last for many years. These often chronic health conditions are compounded for survivors of trafficking by unique barriers to accessing adequate health care and medical treatment. Untreated conditions, especially contagious illnesses, can threaten the health of the individual victims, as well as the collective health condition of their communities.
In responding to the consequences detailed above, several U.S. public health experts in the 2017 compilation of essays titled Human Trafficking Is a Public Health Issue make the case that using a public health perspective that moves beyond a criminal justice response has the advantage of enlisting a broader set of stakeholders and leads to more effective strategies to support victims and prevent human trafficking. For example, licensed health care practitioners, first responders, and other service providers can be trained to better identify victims seeking medical attention and help them to come forward. Likewise, professional curricula on domestic violence, child abuse, and elder abuse can integrate human trafficking elements. Such enhanced understanding and expanded training among a wide range of community stakeholders also aids in the prevention of human trafficking, as individuals with certain histories—such as abuse, violence, homelessness, substance abuse, or untreated mental health disorders—are considered at increased risk for human trafficking. In this way, employing a public health perspective can help inform the development of more effective anti-trafficking interventions and prevention strategies.
Media Reporting on Human Trafficking
From traditional news outlets to social media, a growing movement is exposing human trafficking as a concern both from a human rights and a national security perspective.
Just 15 years ago, human trafficking was an under-reported and often misrepresented issue and some reporting sensationalized the problem or even misinformed the public. In the last few years, a significant shift has occurred in the media’s reporting of human trafficking, from dramatic exposés to in-depth original research and agenda-setting public-interest reporting. These media reports have helped change the way the public looks at human trafficking—from a crime that happens to “others” to one that has an impact on people’s everyday lives, in nearly every community and region of the world.
Some of the highlights and exemplary reporting in the last few years include:
2009, Des Moines Register. A Register investigation in 2009 led to the release of dozens of men with intellectual disabilities, who were living in squalor, abused, and forced to work for as little as 41 cents per hour processing turkeys in a plant in Atalissa, Iowa. After four years of court battles with the company, the men won a $240 million jury verdict, which was subsequently reduced to $50,000 per person.
2010, CNN Freedom Project. The network originally committed to a one-year project dedicated to raising awareness about modern slavery around the world. This year, the network celebrates seven years of the “Freedom Project,” which has covered more than 600 investigative stories on human trafficking to date.
2011, Al Jazeera English. The network started a ground-breaking series, “Slavery: A 21st Century Evil,” highlighting modern slavery around the world.
2012, National Public Radio. A two-part series on Morning Edition exposed forced labor in the seafood sector and its link to American dinner tables.
2014, the Guardian. A six-month investigative series, “Modern-day Slavery in Focus,” revealed direct links between the men forced to labor on fishing boats and in the production of seafood sold by major retailers throughout the world.
2014, Los Angeles Times. The four-part investigative series, “Product of Mexico,” revealed the harsh living conditions and exploitative situations endured by migrant farmworkers in Mexico who supplied significant amounts of agricultural produce to the United States.
2015, New York Times. A seven-part series, “The Outlaw Ocean,” which took two years to investigate, provided a comprehensive look at the overall lawlessness at sea and chronicled a diversity of crimes, including forced labor on fishing boats.
2015, Capital News Service. Students from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland produced a six-part investigative series, “The Brothel Next Door: Human Trafficking in Maryland,” that examined more than three-dozen state and federal human trafficking cases from 2005 to 2015, and submitted 70 public records requests for reports on forced labor and sex trafficking cases.
2016 Associated Press. The 18-month investigative story, “Seafood from Slaves,” led to the release of more than 2,000 trafficking victims, traced the seafood they caught to supermarkets and pet food providers across the United States, and led to the jailing of perpetrators, congressional hearings, and the introduction of new laws.
Media play an enormous role in shaping perceptions and guiding the public conversation about human trafficking. Human trafficking schemes are constantly evolving, and the media’s vigilance helps keep the public informed and engaged. As media pursues more research and investigative work on the issue, the public will better understand how the crime works, how to identify and help trafficking victims, and ultimately, what can be done to prevent the crime from happening.
Online Sexual Exploitation of Children: An Alarming Trend
New technologies are facilitating the online sexual exploitation of children, including the live-streaming of sexual abuse of children using web cameras or cellphones, often for profit. Mobile devices also provide new and evolving means by which offenders sexually abuse children as apps are being used to target, recruit, and coerce children to engage in sexual activity. Experts believe tens of thousands of children globally are sexually exploited online, and the number appears to be growing. The victims may be boys or girls, ranging from very young children to adolescents, and hailing from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
The process often begins when an offender gains access to a potential child victim and, through psychological manipulation and coercion, grooms the child for sexual exploitation. The offender then connects via the internet with a paying client who often specifically requests a child. The child is further victimized through commercial sexual exploitation and abuse and the live-streaming of commercial sex acts. Perpetrators can pay to direct the sexual abuse of children from anywhere in the world while the abuse takes place in private homes, Internet cafes, or “cyber dens” in or near the child’s community. Disturbingly, closed and highly protected online communities dedicated to the sexual abuse of children have proliferated. Children have been reported to be victims of this crime in Colombia, India, Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States. Many countries, including Australia, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, the Philippines, and the United States, have prosecuted perpetrators—both paying clients and offenders who facilitate the exploitation of the child.
In the Philippines, where many are impoverished and nearly half of the population is connected to the internet, numerous individuals in poor communities reportedly earn income from this type of child exploitation. Online sessions can be conducted at low cost using a cellphone or a computer with a webcam. Connections to prospective clients are made easily; clients remain anonymous and make payments by wire transfer. Children, often naked, have been exploited on camera—including by family members or neighbors—and coerced into exhibiting themselves and performing sex acts for the viewing of individuals watching online. In many cases, family members justify facilitating the online sexual exploitation by asserting that it is not harmful to the child, especially in cases where there is no direct physical contact with the child. This lack of understanding of the detrimental psychological, developmental, and physical impact of this crime on children, the complicity of relatives, and the easy flow of money have contributed to the practice becoming more prevalent.
Another growing threat to children is sextortion, which is a form of online sexual exploitation of children where offenders hack, coerce, deceive or otherwise obtain incriminating photos or information from a child and then threaten exposure if that child does not perform sex acts via web cameras.
The online sexual exploitation of children presents new challenges for law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and victim service providers. Law enforcement and prosecutors in most countries have little training or experience in detecting this crime, conducting online investigations, obtaining evidence from internet service providers, and presenting relevant evidence in court. Enhanced mechanisms of encryption by the offenders, such as networks of technologies and platforms that obfuscate traditional IP addresses, have also delayed or complicated investigations. In addition, difficulties in obtaining the cooperation of family members and others who facilitate the crime is a widespread challenge in these cases, as is the lack of specialized trauma-informed care and services for the child victims, especially boys.
Despite such challenges, governments, international organizations, and NGOs are working together to address the online sexual exploitation of children. Successful detection and prosecution of perpetrators requires advanced cybercrime investigative skills, criminal laws and procedures that secure cyber evidence and allow for prosecution of crimes committed online, specialized training for prosecutors and judges, cross-border law enforcement cooperation, and specialized care for child victims. The low financial cost of this criminal enterprise (an internet connection and a mobile device or computer-linked webcam), coupled with its low risk nature (as seen by the relatively small number of convictions globally) and high profitability are driving the rapid growth of online sexual exploitation of children. To reverse this trend, governments must rally significant political will and resources to hold perpetrators accountable, provide comprehensive services to child victims, and prevent the crime from occurring.
Paying to Work: The High Cost of Recruitment Fees
Each year, millions of workers turn to or are approached by labor intermediaries—recruiters, agents, or brokers—who facilitate the movement of labor to satisfy global demand. As globalization increasingly drives markets toward temporary or seasonal contract work that depends on labor mobility and flexibility, the importance of the recruitment industry grows.
Labor intermediaries function as a bridge between workers and employers and, at their best, can provide helpful guidance and assist in matching workers with jobs and in arranging visas and documentation, medical checkups, pre-departure orientation, training, and travel. These intermediaries can range from licensed and legitimate to informal and unregulated, and increasingly, to criminal.
The International Labor Organization recognizes the important function of recruitment in a globalized world, but cautions against its use in ways that harm workers:
Recruitment should respond to established labor market needs, and not serve as a means to displace or diminish an existing workforce, to lower labor standards, wages, or working conditions, or to otherwise undermine decent work.
Around the world, workers and advocates report that unscrupulous recruiters often use misleading and fraudulent practices to take advantage of workers, especially those who do not have access to information about job opportunities and their rights. In many cases, workers also lack access to remedies when they experience exploitation.
Dishonest recruiters employ a variety of practices that ultimately undermine decent working conditions: they mislead workers about the conditions and nature of a job, engage in contract switching, and confiscate or destroy workers’ identity documents to prevent them from leaving. Another common practice—charging workers fees to access job opportunities or cover the costs of recruitment—is a dominant model of recruitment in much of the world that contributes to the facilitation of crimes such as corruption and bribery and puts workers at risk of exploitation, including human trafficking.
Worker-paid Recruitment Fees
In many cases, low-wage workers borrow large sums of money to cover the cost of recruitment fees, which can amount to anywhere from several hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. Misled by promises of high wages, workers may borrow money from family or predatory lenders, or mortgage their homes or land, believing that they can easily repay their debts upon employment. These fees, which may also be combined with unfair and excessive interest rates, mean workers spend a period of time—sometimes years—working exclusively to repay what they owe.
When workers are charged recruitment fees, they become vulnerable to a variety of abuses, including debt bondage, a form of human trafficking in which individuals are forced to give up most or all of their salary until their debts are repaid. Individuals who carry debts that must be repaid with their wages are reluctant to complain to an employer or law enforcement, or leave the job. Workers may endure abusive conditions for fear of losing their job and defaulting on their debts. In many cases, unpaid debt results in threats to family members or loss of family property, adding further pressure for workers to stay in exploitative conditions.
Enforcing Government Regulation and Private Sector Policies
Currently, the loosely defined “recruitment industry” is ripe for creating conditions of exploitation. Existing laws often fail to assign any responsibility to recruitment agents to protect workers, and governments do not actively monitor recruiters or require remediation when recruiters use fraudulent practices to exploit workers. In those countries where recruitment fees are prohibited, governments often do not robustly enforce such prohibitions.
In many cases, it can be difficult to prove that recruiters or recruitment agencies were aware of the exploitative circumstances in which the worker eventually ended up—and, even if they do not knowingly contribute to a human trafficking scheme, their actions can significantly contribute to the vulnerability of the worker. Because holding recruiters criminally accountable is challenging, the enforcement of regulations on abusive recruitment practices is all the more important.
For many businesses, the use of recruiters is a necessity and therefore should be treated as any operating cost, but using recruitment methods that ultimately pass these costs on to workers is both unfair and unsustainable. All employers, including those who contract with governments, should bear the cost and responsibility of using recruiters and should support and work closely with licensed recruitment agents to prohibit unscrupulous recruitment practices. Employers should be willing to pay higher costs for agencies that effectively implement measures to prevent exploitation and governments should promote policies that protect workers, enforce labor regulations, and prosecute criminals who knowingly exploit the vulnerability of workers.
In recent years, there has been growing consensus that, throughout their supply chains, both governments and the private sector should prohibit the practice of charging recruitment fees to workers:
- In 2016, worker, employer, and government representatives to the ILO negotiated and adopted non-binding general principles and operational guidelines for fair recruitment. The ILO identified governments as having the ultimate responsibility for advancing fair recruitment, and included the principle that “No recruitment fees or related costs should be charged to, or otherwise borne by, workers or jobseekers.”
- In 2011, the Dhaka Principles for migration with dignity included as its first principle that no fees should be charged to migrant workers.
- The United States’ 2015 Federal Acquisition Regulation, Ending Trafficking in Persons, prohibits federal contractors from charging workers recruitment fees, among other misleading and fraudulent recruitment practices.
- The International Organization for Migration is developing the International Recruitment Integrity System (IRIS) to provide a platform for addressing unfair recruitment. Accreditation to the program will be based on recruiters’ adherence to certain principles, one of which includes a prohibition on charging fees to job seekers.
- The Consumer Goods Forum, a global network of more than 400 retailers, manufacturers, and service providers representing some $3.5 trillion in sales, adopted a policy in 2016 stating the employer should bear the cost of recruitment, not the worker.
- The Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment, convened by the Institute for Human Rights and Business, is a group of major companies working together with experts to address the payment of recruitment fees by workers. Launched in 2016, the initiative is based around the Employer Pays Principle, which states that “No worker should pay for a job. The costs of recruitment should be borne not by the worker but by the employer.” The aim of the Group is the eradication of worker-paid fees over the coming decade.
Access to fair economic opportunity is critical not only to the livelihood of workers but also to preventing human trafficking. Labor intermediaries can help connect workers and employers and should be compensated for this work. Too often, however, workers are forced to shoulder the cost of their own recruitment, which makes them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation. Governments and the private sector can take actions to eliminate this practice and help to create supply chains free from human trafficking.