Before I was first asked to draft a blog post for Human Trafficking Awareness Day, I never really had given the subject much thought.

A lot of what popped into mind when thinking “human trafficking” was mostly cartoonish in nature. Some sort of villain hidden behind a bush or waiting for the victim at a corner, ready to jump on them and drag them into a white unsuspecting van. 

The victims would have absolutely no sense of what is happening to them as they were always taken by surprise.

Human trafficking, in my understanding, involved the crossing of borders, smuggling migrants and it would always resort to some sort of physical violence.

So I started researching. As I did, the nuances and my misconceptions on the topic became less blurry and I would like to share what I found with you.

How do we define human trafficking?

The United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) defines human trafficking as “involving the recruitment, movement or harbouring of people for the purpose of exploitation – such as sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or organ removal.

It can occur both within a country as well as by crossing its borders. 

Contrary to (my) belief, the victims of human trafficking do not get kidnapped. And traffickers do not necessarily resort to physical violence all the time, to compel these unfortunate individuals to follow their orders.

Coercion, however, happens in other forms. Manipulation, threats, deception and fraud are other psychological means of forcing people into deplorable situations.

Some of these means imply that the victim is aware of the condition and the strings attached to it; yet they somehow consciously agree to those.

From an angle, this makes the victim look like an active player into the scheme, and what follows is that they should not be perceived as “trafficked”. However, that initial consent nor any form of payment is relevant to the crime.

Who is the target of traffickers?

Vulnerability feeds into human trafficking. The picture depicts a faceless person, in a hood with a white background.
Photo by @mettyunuabona on Unsplash

How do traffickers pick their victims? Is it the result of prior, thought-out stalking? Is there a pattern in the types of demographic that get entangled in this dangerous web?

Facts to be told, traffickers prey on the weak: be it financially, mentally, socially; and the vulnerable: due to isolation, lack of or basic education, belonging to a sexual or racial minority.

Wars, conflicts and political instability play a role in the spreading of such inhumane practices too. 

When people find themselves lacking means to support their family, their needs or vices, unorthodox means and evil predators find their way and position themselves as the (only) opportunity to satisfy their requests.

Moreover, traffickers are not faceless or masked villains approaching out of the blue their victims.

In some of the testimonials of survivors, these people’s merchants are “trusted” individuals who are already part of the person’s life.

That might also include romantic partners or family members. 

The fil rouge in all the scenarios is vulnerability, lack of resources and opportunities that would be available in a different environment. 

When one feels stuck or is in such desperate conditions and the only way out of their situation is handed to them “easily”, the pressure to accept taps into survival instincts.

Human trafficking vs migrant smuggling

An interesting part of researching the topic was finding out that migrant smuggling is a different crime than human trafficking. 

The former can only occur and it is considered as such when borders are crossed. 

As described by the UNODC, migrant smuggling “consists in assisting migrants to enter or stay in a country illegally, for financial or material gain. Smugglers make a profitable business out of migrants’ need and/or desire to enter a country and the lack of legal documents to do so.”

In this case, though, migrants accepting to pay and resorting to the illegal ways of smugglers, if caught, are not considered as absolute victimes and might also face prosecution.

Unfair as it may sound, these migrants face nonetheless unimaginable obstacles and are put into hazardous situations which involve human rights violations.

Myths (and some reality)

Let’s debunk some of the most common myths around human trafficking.

  • All human trafficking involves sex.  Human trafficking involves forcing an individual to provide some sort of performance. Even though trafficking with the purpose of sex is what makes the news the most, it is far from being the only type. Forced labour as well as debt bondage are actually among the most common triggers behind the coercion of people into such situations.
  • Human trafficking only happens in illegal or underground industries. Sadly, industries such as hospitality, constructions, factories and cleaning services recur at times to workforce who are the result of illegal people’s movements. Underground markets are definitely profiting from this situation, but they are not the one and only recipient.
  • People being trafficked are physically unable to leave their situations/locked in/held against their will. Even though this might be the case at times, it is not necessarily true of all experiences. Not, at least, when speaking of physical restrictions. As addressed, intimidation comes in several forms and shapes. Most times, those who have been smuggled fear for their safety or might not have the financial or logistical means to try and escape. Some, in the worst of scenarios, have been so deeply manipulated not to even be aware of being under the control of their smuggler.
Two people in the frame. The man on the right is holding his hand against a female's mouth to impede her to speak.
Photo by @sammywilliams on Unsplash
  • Victims will immediately ask for help and self-identify as victims of a crime. Sadly that is quite far from the truth. Human trafficking has an enormous impact on the people who fell in this trap. Traffickers dehumanize their victims to a point where their sense of dignity and power gets annulled. The psychological trauma these individuals endure works against them in finding a voice to denounce their situation. Some are also physically harmed, raped or abused which adds on to the guilt-wall built around them and prevents them to speak up. Finally, the level of isolation and ostracism some of the victims experience makes it impossible to reach out for help. Families and friends might unknowingly shut out victims of their circles and the vicious circle does not seem to end.

If you wish to know more about other recurring myths on the topic, continue uncovering the actual facts here and here.

State of affairs: what is the UN surveilling?

In 2000 the UN adopted a Protocol, as the result of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

This binding document proposes an internationally recognized definition for human trafficking, helpful in identifying the victims and detecting situations connected to such crime.

Countries that ratify this treaty must criminalise human trafficking and develop anti-trafficking laws in line with the Protocol’s legal provisions.  

A very similar document was also drafted for the crime of migrant smuggling.

The very political and social circumstances of some countries work as the perfect fertile patch for human trafficking conditions to blossom.

So one of the goals of these protocols is for these countries to address causes such as education, financial stability, social integration and personal development. Improving those would advance the fight against this crime.

By addressing them, the state gives the tools for individuals to thrive in their own environment. To spot such schemes when occurring and to not wind up in them.

Human Trafficking Awareness Day is the proxy for us all to investigate further into the matter and become more conscious of a practice far more intertwined in our lives than we know.

What can I do to prevent human trafficking?

Human trafficking feels like and is a huge task to undertake and fight against all by oneself. And nobody in their right mind would ask you to. There is something that you can help with, though. 

Isolation, lack of social integration and of the support of a network can be the game changer in whether accepting a scatchy proposition. When you do not have anyone to reach out to for advice or you can not make yourself understood, things might take a turn for the worst.

SPEAK champions social integration and personal development through the amazing tool a language is. 

By being a buddy for one of our language groups, you will have the chance to share your culture and to get to learn about the corners of the world your participants come from.

By joining as a participant, you will be welcome in a safe space, meet new people, practise a new language and why not, make friends for life.

This may be your simple way to help migrants meaningful connections and friendships, to learn to make themselves understood and to grant them a fair chance at fair conditions.

Author: Valentina Rampazzo

Valentina is a polyglot and a culture deep diver. She has lived in 5 countries across Europe and has most recently joined SPEAK as a Copywriter Intern. Her passions are her plants, plant-based cooking and writing.

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