Human trafficking:

Impossible entity or cruel reality?


By El Barnes / 28 October 2019


Exploitation can occur in the form of forced labour (manual or sexual), forced marriage, and the harvesting of organs. Human trafficking is a billion-dollar industry; one of the fastest growing in the world. Look up ‘human trafficking statistics’ and you’ll be confronted by a cloud of terms like ‘at least’, ‘well over’ and ‘estimated’, for the simple reason that such an unfortunately lucrative, adaptive and well-guarded industry is difficult to keep track of. In recent years, though, the discourse surrounding human trafficking has increased, with organisations such as Thorn – founded by Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher in 2012 with the aim of addressing, in particular, child sex trafficking – and international events such as the annual World Day against Trafficking in Persons helping to highlight the prevalence of the issue.

Even with this increasing exposure, however, human trafficking is regarded as a sort of alien predator; the kind of thing that doesn’t happen to people ‘like us’. Is this necessarily the case? And, if so, isn’t it our duty to tackle this horrendous reality, regardless of it not necessarily being our own?

The International Labour Organisation says of modern slavery and human trafficking that:

  • An estimated 40.3 million people are victims, including 24.9 million in forced labour and 15.4 million in forced marriage
  • There are 5.4 victims for every 1,000 people in the world
  • 1 in 4 victims of modern slavery are children
  • Out of the 24.9 million people trapped in forced labour, 16 million people are exploited in the private sector such as domestic work, construction or agriculture; 4.8 million in forced sexual exploitation, and 4 million in forced labour imposed by state authorities
  • Women and girls are disproportionately affected by forced labour, accounting for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58% in other sectors
  • 77% of victims are targeted in their country of residence

Of the 40.3 million victims internationally, with an estimated 2.5 million new victims each year, ‘well over’ 13,000 of these reside in the UK.

Although 13,000 translates as 0.1% of the overall population, this figure nevertheless – especially with the prefix of ‘well over’ – illustrates the horrifying reality that human trafficking isn’t a predator found exclusively in developing countries. Only in April, West Midlands Police were involved in the closure of a factory with links to forced labour in Smethwick. With this in mind, it’s useful to make note of the signs that someone is involved in human trafficking. Although there is no set victim profile, among those most at risk are people who have suffered abuse as children, or are part of the foster system, and people who have run away from home and/or are homeless.

The signs that someone is a victim of human trafficking include:

  • Fear of authority
  • Bruises and untreated injuries, and other signs of trauma including wariness of physical contact
  • Lack of official documentation, e.g. passport
  • Regular relocation
  • Lack of proper accommodation, sleeping at workplace
  • Signs of substance misuse
  • Inability to travel freely (always picked up/dropped off by another person)
  • Appearing to be in debt to someone, and working inhumane hours to pay it off
  • Being paid less than minimum wage

and, in children:

  • Unexplained absence from school
  • Signs of poor mental health including low self-esteem and the development of eating disorders
  • Associating with much older people, potentially being in relationships with them
  • Experimenting with drugs and/or alcohol
  • Unexplained money and/or presents

So what is likely to happen when someone has been trafficked?

Although only an estimated 0.2-0.4% of victims are rescued worldwide each year, this nevertheless amounts to tens of thousands of victims annually, all capable of sharing their stories and therefore contributing to the fight against human trafficking. Victims are often transported across borders, with countries such Switzerland and Iran acting as pitstops.  They can be sold to strangers for sex, in which case the person who made the arrangement – the trafficker – is the one who receives the payment. In the forced labour industry – immigrants are especially vulnerable – victims are often made to feel as though they are in debt to their employer, and must therefore work long hours in poor conditions and without breaks to pay the debt off. In other cases, victims are forced into illegal activity, including making and distributing illicit substances. This has been cited as a particular area of concern in the UK.

Although it is apparent that the human trafficking industry operates much closer to home than you may initially have thought, it’s important to note that the prospect of becoming a victim is much higher in certain developing countries. Women in Equatorial Guinea, for example, are especially at risk of being sold into sex trafficking, with the country as a whole repeatedly being cited among those doing the least to tackle the issue, along with Eritrea, which is notorious for its forced labour industry; Iran, where, again, women are especially vulnerable to sex trafficking, and North Korea, where forced labour is simply a quintessential aspect of citizenship. The closest of these countries to the UK is Eritrea, 5,783km away: although there are, undeniably, branches of human trafficking operating in the underworld close to home, at its darkest and most dangerous it is out of reach. But is this distance enough to excuse our refusal to acknowledge human trafficking as a cruel reality rather than an impossible entity?

Your answer to this question should be a resounding ‘no’. 

Stories from survivors of human trafficking are not hard to come by, and although each story is different they have two key commonalities: highlighting that there are currently far more victims than survivors, and that being rescued is only the beginning of a long road to recovery. Survivors are often plagued by flashbacks to their trauma and suffer with mental health problems including depression, anxiety, PTSD and psychosis. In countries such as Equatorial Guinea, and Eritrea, and Iran, and North Korea, the chances of being trafficked are much higher, and the chances of being rescued – and, therefore, recovering – are much lower. It is not only important but our duty as citizens of the world to increase awareness of this cruel reality and contribute to the fight against it.

Making a difference doesn’t have to involve active protest, or anything that detracts from your daily routine. It can be as simple as making a note of the signs that someone is a victim of human trafficking, so that you’re in a better position to help them. The important thing, though, is that there are already so many invaluable organisations fighting against the horror of human trafficking, and we can all do our bit simply by supporting them. These include Shared Hope, a nonprofit working to combat sex trafficking internationally. Their ethos involves prevention, restoration and justice, demonstrating care for victims across every part of their journey, and in 2005 they founded Asha Nepal, a village that houses 11 women and 15 children each year - all victims of sex trafficking - and provides them with invaluable counselling, medical treatment and vocational training.

They are based in the US and so active support is difficult but it’s easy to donate via their website. Stop The Traffik is a nonprofit that, like many others, has adopted a technological approach, and is working to combat each sector of human trafficking worldwide. Their ‘STOP’ app can be downloaded by anyone, allowing the general public to report suspicious activities and survivors to share their stories, contributing to a colourful global picture that enables Stop The Traffik to predict future trends and locate trafficking ‘hotspots’. Information is submitted anonymously and securely, in the form of images and/or text. Again, it’s easy to donate through the website but they also encourage fundraising and have plenty of helpful tips regarding how to do so effectively.

Human trafficking is a formidable predator but with so many people working tirelessly to overcome it, developing new technologies, providing vital support for victims and increasing societal awareness and legal representation, the hope that one day we will do so doesn’t seem so unrealistic.

Words by
El Barnes

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