It is common to see fact sheets on trafficking that list “signs to watch for” to identify trafficking cases or other indicators of trafficking risk. We humans like categories and check lists to help us organize complex information. As helpful as these fact sheets might be, however, they run the risk of conveying an overly simplistic sense of how vulnerability operates, which could be misleading. Trafficking, and vulnerability to trafficking, remains a complex phenomenon, that defies overly simplistic definitions. Let’s talk about measuring vulnerability and how it requires less a checklist and more a narrative.
What’s So Complicated About Measuring Vulnerability?
By now you’re probably aware that there are certain risk factors that make people more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation: poverty, lack of education, ethnic minority status, lack of legal protections, a history of abuse…and so on. This can make it sound like poverty or lack of schooling cause trafficking, but of course they don’t. Being poor does not condemn one to being trafficked, and not everyone who is poor becomes trafficked.
When we say that the more risk factors one has, the more likely they are to be trafficked, it can sound like a linear process. But that’s not quite right either. Some people have all the risk factors and never get trafficked; others have very few, and end up trafficked anyway. How does that happen? For one thing, people also have resilience factors, which can include education about risky situations, an ability to recognize risky ventures, inherent risk aversion or risk acceptance, networks of support, or alternative options to choose from.
Furthermore, people exist in ecosystems–a cultural, societal, or communal context–where, in some, trafficking is facilitated because more exploitation is allowed to occur, where more traffickers are likely to lurk, or people are less likely to know or insist upon their rights. These can include contexts where there is a breakdown in the rule of law, or, for example, online, where predators believe they can escape detection.
In Southeast Asia, by and large, those who get trafficked come from poverty, haven’t completed schooling, are ethnic minorities, and many have already suffered a history of sexual abuse. It’s so common, it’s enough for most anti-trafficking organizations to operate on these assumptions. However, there is increased attention paid now to situations involving online ads that appears to be for legitimate jobs working in call centers or something similar, yet turn out to be lures to traffick people into illegal online gambling or scam operations. In many of these cases, the people trafficked are not poor or uneducated or ethnic minorities. They are relatively educated, lower middle class people who might have lost a job due to COVID and just happened to come across the wrong ad on social media. They are trafficked, beaten, tortured, or even killed for it.
It’s tempting to look at that as a simple case of chance or bad luck. However, it’s more useful to think of vulnerability in terms of a narrative–a pathway or journey that leads people toward a more risky situation; a pathway where it becomes more likely, though not necessarily inevitable.
On Understanding Risk as Narrative
A joint report by Winrock International, USAID, and Elevate from last year discusses the complex nature of vulnerability. The report shares findings from Schwartz et al. (2019) whose “model frames human trafficking as part of a larger continuum of violence, vulnerability, and exploitation where individuals may find their risk of trafficking increasing as the number of adverse life events and factors accumulate over time [emphasis added]. As an example, the authors refer to financial instability created by unemployment and poverty, which may increase the risks people take in looking for income and add to the likelihood of experiencing exploitation.”
The interesting part about this framing is the accumulation over time aspect of risk, where people who might initially be resilient have their resilience worn down as the length of their crisis situation extends. This tracks with what we know of the grooming process as well. When traffickers target an individual online, it is rare that they traffick the person immediately. It’s generally the case that they build a relationship and build trust, while wearing down a person’s natural barriers. It’s harder to wear down a person with strong resilience factors, easier to wear down someone who is already struggling with other challenges that make them desperate for any other way through. While the checklist of risk factors is handy, the real life experience of trafficking vulnerability entails looking more deeply at a person’s story and where they are in terms of building resilience, how frequently they encounter the lures of exploiters, or how desperate they might be for a reprieve from their situation, whether that’s poverty or loneliness.
This complexity lies behind why our intake process for new scholarship students is so deep and involved, why developing strong mentor relationships is a pillar of our prevention programming, and so many of our interventions address both reducing risk and strengthening resilience. To know our students’ risk, we need to know our students’ stories and walk with them on their path to greater resilience.