* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the Anti-Trafficking Review, Issue 6.
What is success in the fight against trafficking? The news media and the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report highlight the same narrow list: increased penalties, arrests and prosecutions. But while those strategies are glorified, they shift focus away from those who should be centred in the conversation—victims and survivors. Ignoring their needs guarantees we will never end human trafficking.
In the United States, many extoll a ‘victim-centred’ approach, but prosecutions are, by their very nature, not victim-centred. Prosecutions ask us to focus our time, attention and resources on punishment of the trafficker or other third parties, rendering the victim little more than a tool for that purpose. While the trafficker may receive harsh punishment, this outcome does nothing to help the person victimised find housing or stable employment. For those leaving a trafficking situation, this often means returning to the conditions which made them vulnerable in the first place.
To compound this, the process of prosecution can bring further trauma. Recounting traumatic events to numerous attorneys, case managers, and a jury can re-open wounds and re-traumatise victims who wish to move on with their lives. Prosecutors and investigators may ask victims to interact further with the trafficker to get needed information, or to delay applications for other remedies so as not to detract from the criminal case. At best, a successful prosecution might bring a sense of justice and, in rare instances, can bring financial compensation to a victim. At worst, it can re-open emotional wounds or even put victims in further danger.
Despite these unintended consequences, the criminal justice system remains the primary way that countries seek to end trafficking. Demonstrating increasing numbers of arrests, prosecutions, and longer sentences is viewed as success in the fight against trafficking.
A trafficking situation never begins the day someone is trafficked. Often the story begins years earlier with poverty, housing and food instability, lack of education, discrimination and/or domestic violence. These factors create the vulnerability that pushes many into trafficking and exploitative situations. Social isolation of LGBTQ communities, criminalisation of migrants and sex workers, and proliferation of class and ethnic stigma are all contributing factors. When a sex worker cannot report violence for fear of arrest, a trafficker can exploit this vulnerability. When a migrant fears deportation and remains bound to the employer despite working 20-hour days below minimum wage, they are vulnerable to trafficking. When a young transgender person cannot find a suitable shelter and is forced to either trade sex or sleep on the street, they are vulnerable to trafficking. We must see where we are manufacturing these vulnerabilities through our policies, and address these before someone is trafficked or exploited. Economic and social justice demand commitment to reforming our communities and societies, if we really do wish to end trafficking. Prioritising prosecution above all other forms of anti-trafficking work diverts us from solutions which address this vulnerability—and solutions which prevent human trafficking from occurring in the first place.
Trafficking is a crime of extreme exploitation; and it is the overarching economic and social injustice that frames the actions of both the victim and the victimiser. But when we simply arrest and prosecute, we still leave trafficking victims to struggle to find a way to survive in an economydominated by inequality and exploitation. We must focus on root causes as the core of anti-trafficking work instead of the periphery. We must celebrate the work of unions which put in place labour protections, community organisations which support members in times of crisis, and gender justice organisations which address the marginalisation of women and transgender people, all of whom are doing invaluable work to stem and prevent trafficking and exploitation.
Prosecutions are fuelled by our justifiable outrage, but they can distract us from where we must centre our attention. By looking to those victimised, before and after a trafficking situation, we can find a way forward where we do more than punish trafficking—we prevent it.
Kate D’Adamo is a National Policy Advocate for the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. She works on policy and social advocacy at the state, federal and cross-regional level, addressing issues impacting those engaged in the sex trade, including human trafficking and HIV. Prior to joining SWP, Kate was the lead organiser with the Sex Workers Outreach Project-NYC and Sex Workers Action New York, two constituent-led organisations supporting those trading sex in the New York City area. In this role, Kate developed programming to promote community building, curated peer-support spaces, supported leadership development and advanced community-directed advocacy. She has also worked on issues relating to human trafficking, labour rights, international solidarity and migration at the International Commission for Labor Rights, Global Workers Justice Alliance and the Open Society Foundation.