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Talking With Survivors
February 27, 2020

40.3 million people are trapped in modern-day slavery. 403,000 on any given day in the U.S. We generally don’t focus on these kinds of statistics on our blog or social media feed, beyond a quick mention when necessary because estimates are notoriously unreliable. What is certain, however, is that whatever the exact figures are, they’re huge.

The Likelihood of Crossing Paths With Survivors

While numbers like these are shocking and can provoke us into action, we refer to them here because they also have implications about the likelihood that we might someday meet someone who is a survivor. We want survivors to feel free and included, welcomed. We want to be respectful of their experience, and at the same time, we don’t want to reduce them to their experience. For those of us who haven’t been through something similar, what can that kind of interaction look like?

To help answer this question, we turned to Minh Dang, Executive Director of Survivor Alliance, a nonprofit organization of survivor leaders dedicated to connect and help empower survivors and survivor leaders, to help ensure their voices remain central to any anti-slavery effort. In addition to her director role, Minh Dang is pursuing a PhD at the University of Nottingham, studying the well-being of survivors of slavery and human trafficking.

Minh Dang, Executive Director of Survivor Alliance

She graciously shared her time and expertise in discussing ways to engage with survivors of trafficking and exploitation. Whether you wish to do volunteer work, or begin in the advocacy space, or if you just happen to know someone who divulges that they had been trafficked, here is some really on-point advice about how to be a safer space.

On Being A Safer Space

TFS: It’s probably self-evident to most people that survivors would likely need mental health services to help them process and recover from their trauma. In your experience, what are some of the biggest, specific needs?

MD: People need immediate general emotional support. Not necessarily a counselling session, but to be able to talk and process all that is going on at any hour of the day. Even if people are getting support through an NGO, this is usually immediately around shelter, food, etc. People need a NEUTRAL party, a fellow survivor perhaps, to say, “‘Wow, this is a lot, isn’t it? You really are safe here,’ or ‘I am not sure how things will go, but this is a new start.’”

Survivors need a space to talk about suicide or why to be alive, without people freaking out and immediately doing a safety assessment. Our relationship to life has changed, and we will need to explore it.


TFS: If someone discloses to you that they were a victim of trafficking, what are some ways to respond (or not respond) in order to be a safe space for this kind of disclosure?

MD: Consider the context in which they disclosed this to you. Are you co-participants in a conference and they disclosed to a whole group? They most likely chose to do that, so you don’t need to feel responsible to check in on them. Unless you think the agency who invited them isn’t treating them well.

If someone discloses in a more personal setting, again, consider context. If they say it in passion, “Well I’m a survivor and I think government needs to do ___. There are unintended consequences to that policy,” respond and acknowledge the disclosure, but don’t make a big deal of it and change the conversation to focus on the person’s trafficking experience. Stay on the topic of conversation. “Thanks for sharing your personal experience. Tell me more about what you see as the unintended consequences?” If the person brings it back to their experience, that’s fine. It’s helpful to say, “Before you continue, I want you to know I’m happy to hear these personal details and you don’t have any obligation to share it with me.”


TFS: What do you wish more people knew about trafficking or how it happens, especially to be informed about how to avoid or prevent it in the first place? (For example, what do you commonly hear survivors say they wish they knew, or what was for them maybe a kind of key moment where things might have turned out differently? Not placing blame, obviously! Just more to get to the point of what we can help spread awareness about.)

MD: Survivors don’t usually know about “human trafficking” until they are out of it. Or, if they are in it, they don’t think it applies to their situation. So be mindful of this. This is our field’s language. I wish people knew how a lot of it happens through people that survivors trust – an uncle, a friend. Not just pure strangers.

I also wish people know that life after exit is hard. So hard that people may feel like it’s safer to go back into exploitation, OR so hard that people are still very vulnerable to re-trafficking. It’s not like people get out and are 100% safe or have what they need to build a life.

Not all survivors have PTSD but all survivors went through trauma. Survivors went through horrendous violence and survived. We are not fragile.

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As an organization focused on prevention, we’re thankful for and humbled by the reminder that sometimes “prevention,” or avoiding the danger, is outside the scope of what was possible for a person to experience. It’s further proof that while prevention does include trying to reach vulnerable people before the point of exploitation, it also means going deeper into societal or systemic conditions that make this kind of exploitation possible at all.

If you’re interested in looking at more resources on this topic, here’s a great place to start. This piece on Tips for Anti-Trafficking Professionals is especially helpful!


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