Kaine Agary on human trafficking: the victims and survivors in focus

In March 2012, an amateur video surfaced on the internet showing a woman being dragged by two men into a waiting car. That woman was Alem Dechasa, a 33-year-old Ethiopian domestic worker in Lebanon. The location was the Ethiopian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. She had escaped her employers and hoped to take refuge in the embassy. Unfortunately, as the video showed, that did not happen. Instead, she was captured and bundled into the car by the two men. A few days after that incident, Alem Dechasa took her own life. She took her bedsheets and hung herself to escape the cruelty and abuse that she had endured under her employers.

Although Alem Dechasa’s case was widely publicised, the cruelty that Dechasa faced was not isolated. There are many reports on the inhumane conditions under which people like Dechasa and other exploited persons have to work for the sake of earning a living. Traffickers use all sorts of tactics to strip their victims of their personal agency and keep them subjugated. Debt bondage, physical abuse, document confiscation, and threats to life are some of the tactics used. For victims from the Edo area in Nigeria, even the supernatural gets involved as victims are often made to take an oath of secrecy administered by a juju priest, before they are trafficked. The belief in the power of the occult is strong enough that the victims would rather suffer in silence than break the oath of secrecy, fearing for their lives and the lives of family members.

In March 2018, the Oba of Benin, the traditional head of the Binis in Nigeria, convened a meeting of chiefs, native doctors and priests of the different deities in Benin, to sound a warning to all juju priests who administer oaths of secrecy on behalf of human traffickers. The Oba, in a bid to discourage trafficking from Edo, which records high numbers of victims taken to Europe for prostitution, cursed all perpetrators of the crime and further invoked his powers to nullify all oaths of secrecy administered on all victims. It is still too early to assess the effect of this action by the Oba of Benin and his palace chiefs, but it goes to show how deep-rooted the problem is in certain parts of the world.

Whether persons are victims of local or international trafficking, they are usually taken to an environment that they are unfamiliar with, where they have no support system. It therefore becomes difficult for them to know who to trust and confide in, and how to get help in their situations. In some jurisdictions where trafficking activities are high, even state authorities turn a blind eye to what is going on.

Trafficking victims are at risk of diseases such as STDs and cancer, workplace injuries, and long-term health problems due to prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals. The trauma of victims runs much deeper than their physical scars. From the trauma of a young male victim forced to kill other human beings as a child soldier, to domestic workers who survive beatings and rape at the hands of their employer, interventions for victims must consider the mental elements for the victims of human trafficking.

In another case from Lebanon, a Sri Lankan domestic worker was beaten to an inch of her life. She lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital. She recovered with a limp, but more devastating for her is that she lost her memory. All of her life experiences prior to her near-death experience had been erased from her memory. Not even the incident that led to her being hospitalised was saved. One may say that it is a blessing so that she does not relive the trauma of her experience over and again.

There are non-governmental organisations in different countries focused on supporting victims. They provide shelters for victims; liaise with embassies to replace documentation and repatriate victims; and lobby for changes in regulations in the states where they operate. Some governments are actively working to provide better access to medical and mental healthcare, shelter, advocacy and legal support. Advocacy and legal support are especially important. Where a victim whose documentation have been confiscated escapes their situation in a foreign country, the support they get from their home embassy is of utmost importance, to help them get justice, and return home. Sri Lanka has set up a medical centre near the international airport to receive returning victims with varying degrees of physical injury as a result of their working conditions.

Reintegration into society is also important for victims. Some categories of victims find themselves caught in a cycle of exploitation because of shame. Reintegration for young boys who are trafficked into conflict situations as child soldiers can be difficult especially in a community that has suffered because of the conflict. Victims can be ostracised for various reasons including culture. For instance, in cultures that practice honour killings, a woman who has been a victim of forced prostitution is not safe when she returns to her community. Governments must invest resources to not only sensitise the public to the dangers of human trafficking but also to remove the stigma and shame of victims. Inability to reintegrate into their communities makes victims vulnerable to subsequent trafficking.

Human trafficking is a menace that affects victims individually and changes the face of affected communities. Efforts to address the process must go beyond enacting legislation where weak enforcement and lack of funds render the laws impotent. Interventions must address the before, during and after of human trafficking and keep the victims in the conversation. Governments must strive to prosecute and punish the perpetrators, and protect the victims.

This article is the last part in our four-part human trafficking series. For more information on human trafficking, see Bloomsbury Professional's recent publication: Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery: Law and Practice. 

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