The most common media narrative about trafficking looks something like: trafficked ⇒ rescued ⇒ saved ⇒ happily ever after. Unfortunately, for many who have been trafficked, this is not an accurate reflection of their reality.
Putting aside the issue of those who don’t see themselves as having been victimized (if you want to learn more about that aspect, read our previous article here or on how they might be been coerced here), even if we only focus on those who accept the help of an aftercare center, there are still so many aspects that make healing and reintegration into society difficult.
Why Every Step of Aftercare is a Challenge
Our friends at Chab Dai Coalition in Cambodia have been conducting extensive research on survivors of trafficking, interviewing survivors from several aftercare centers. Their research shows how fraught the aftercare process can be, from placement into the shelter, to eventually leaving. Let’s look at some aspects of each in turn.
Placement in an Aftercare Shelter: Who Decides and How?
Many of the survivors talked about how traumatized they were even by the move to an aftercare shelter.
“Many participants reported experiencing deep distress. Clients who were picked up in police raids found their shelter placement especially upsetting. Some felt they had been misled and lied to about their intake. Some participants also described the anguish experienced by their parents upon hearing that their children had been picked up in a police raid and placed in a shelter. Participants, especially younger ones, consistently reported that another key reason for their emotional distress upon shelter intake was that they missed their families.”
They also mentioned that their own wishes were often not consulted about being placed in an aftercare center, or that if presented with options, it was done in a biased way. It’s a decision that might be made for them, or another example of where they’ve been manipulated into a situation.
Life at the Shelter: Who Has Power or Agency?
There were many positives that participants cited about their experience at the shelters. However, even though life at the shelters might have provided them with a safe space, food, access to education and training, and privileges not afforded elsewhere, there were still other parts of life at the shelters that were challenging. There may be staff members who treated them harshly, blamed or judged them, played favorites or even stigmatized them. In some ways, shelter experience might seem like another form of trafficking: having to relinquish your freedom in exchange for something you want or need.
“Although participants said they appreciated the opportunities they had in the shelter, almost all participants said that the shelter’s ‘rules are too much’ and clients lacked freedom. Clients found the magnitude of rules within the shelter to be very stressful. Participants acknowledged that many rules and security procedures within the shelter were developed with the goal of keeping clients safe and that shelters had good intentions. However, most felt that the rules were disproportionate to the actual level of risk. They often felt bored within the shelter. Whereas female participants talked about this in terms of desiring more freedom in a general sense, boys stressed the importance of extracurricular activities outside the shelter. Some said that they felt trapped living in the shelter, like animals inside a cage.”
This was especially challenging for survivors who wanted more contact with their families or home communities.
Reintegration into Society
In the study, many participants also discussed how complicated reintegration felt to them. Some felt it was a difficult transition from the relative safety of the shelter back into society, or that there wasn’t clear communication about the process or expectations, or that they still felt unprepared for the challenges of finding and sustaining employment or overcoming stigma and isolation from the rest of society.
“Although experiences varied across participants, the vast majority of participants – both male and female – reported engaging in little preparation for re/integration in the shelter environment and minimal participation in the decision-making process. When the BLR team asked clients about their plans for re/integration while living in shelters, most shared that they did not know and that they had not made any preparations for returning to the community. Many clients were unsure how long they would be allowed to stay. Once clients began to discuss re/integration with shelter staff, most reported that shelters made the decision of when it was time for the client to leave and informed the client that he/she needed to return home. Decisions regarding client re/integration appeared, from the participants’ perspectives, to be influenced by external factors, such as internal deadlines regarding how long clients were allowed to stay in shelters and/or funding constraints. Lack of participation and lack of advance planning led to fear, anxiety, and confusion among clients.”
We must bear in mind that this is one study in Cambodia, of participants who had been referred by shelters. This means that we cannot assume that what was true for these participants is necessarily true for all trafficking survivors who’ve been in aftercare. There are likely some really excellent aftercare centers in the world, some truly problematic ones, and everything in between. That said, it does track well with other research in the region and other countries, and it raises some key concerns–namely, how well does the aftercare process truly serve as a safe bridge from exploitation to thriving? Have survivor-leaders or survivor-advocates been able to lend their personal experience to influence the management of the shelter or its process? How empowering are their practices to people who have been so violently disempowered? How well are they listened to, or their perspectives considered? How much freedom and choice do they have as they begin to rebuild their lives? Is it patient-centered and culturally sensitive? All aftercare centers are not equal, and assessing the effectiveness of each requires some very deep cultural and contextual awareness–something very difficult for outsiders to do.
Done well, aftercare is a critical part of helping survivors heal and rebuild their lives. Done poorly, it can be an extension of the ways in which they become victimized. What this means for those who are concerned about trafficking, however, is that we must resist the simple narratives. Almost every aspect of trafficking is complex, and be wary of anyone telling you otherwise.
Complicated is not impossible, though. And we invite you to join us in examining the complexities of how trafficking happens and how we can continue to grow and evolve in the fight against it.