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The Overlooked Victims of Trafficking: Families
June 23, 2022

Anti-trafficking intervention and aftercare services tend to be almost exclusively centered on the victims, which seems natural, understandable, and correct. What this overlooks, however, is the impact on their families–the people whose father, mother, sister, brother, or child has gone missing, and who may not know where to turn for help. These people are often overlooked and sidelined, though the trauma they experience, too, is very real.

As with every aspect of trafficking, the issue is complicated–not least because in nearly half of child trafficking cases, family members were involved in the trafficking. However, while that aspect gets a lot of attention, there are still countless family members who were left behind and left alone with the pain and uncertainty of not knowing what happened to the person who disappeared. These family members may suffer a whole host of complicated impacts–from the loss of real material support that family member might have provided, to grief, ambiguous loss, helplessness, and anxiety, as well as potential stigmas from their wider community and any guilt or shame if they feel they unwittingly played a role, for example, if they had taken part in convincing their relative to leave, not knowing this would be the outcome. 

On The Effects of Being Overlooked

Unfortunately, these family members remain invisible to many institutional structures, with unclear claims to support or compensation. In many places, families might not know where to go to report missing migrants who might have been trafficked. And, as an IOM report on missing migrants explains, their access to help might be shaped by factors such as gender, age, class, race, and migration status, which naturally may compound the trauma they experience.  

“People with missing migrant relatives who are migrants themselves – especially if they do not have stable/regular migration status – will face distinct and overlapping barriers to accessing support, information and services, including language barriers, socioeconomic precarity, fear of detention or deportation and discrimination.…This leaves them at greater risk of harm, whether poverty, exploitation, fraud and further trauma.

The policy context also impacts how and if people can effectively search for information about their missing loved ones. In particular, political pressure to control irregular migration has impacted searches for missing migrants, as they are framed by authorities not as a missing-persons cases, but as investigations into migrant smuggling operations. When families (or activists acting on their behalf) report the disappearances of migrants to authorities, they can be pushed for information concerning the smugglers who organized their loved one’s journey, rather than about the disappearance itself. The focus on combating smuggling and irregular migration has contributed to the sidelining of the search process, a lack of trust between families and authorities, and in some cases, the criminalization of humanitarian support provided by civil society and of families’ search efforts.”

Then, even after trafficking victims are found, rescued, and reintegrated, the impacts on the family can be long-lasting. Depending on the specifics of the trafficking case and the nature of the survivor’s return, familial relationships might be strained or frayed. Family members likely don’t have the resources or awareness of how to emotionally support the survivor, especially if they suffer from PTSD and symptoms of trauma like nightmares, flashbacks, or anxieties that interfere with returning to normal daily life and routines.

Furthermore, as a report from the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations explains,

“Studies have shown that the effect of human trafficking is transgenerational extending to the children of trafficked victims. Human trafficking victims rarely discuss their experience with their children, which is similar to most victims of war or torture. They often experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder which can include nightmares, involuntary memories, negative changes in mood, and avoidance. This repression of their trafficking experience creates an underlying atmosphere of anxiety and stress in the family and has a psychological effect on the next generation. Children of human trafficking victims often display an anxious disposition, are prone to externalize anger and have behavioral problems at school. Trafficking victims often are overprotective, controlling, and demanding of their children which places children in a constant situation of stress and anxiety. Adolescent children of trafficked victims who do not speak to the child of the trauma they suffered are often sad, anxious, and have behavior problems at school and later on are not able to relate well to others at work.”

It’s clear that the trauma of trafficking goes on to impact future generations as well–and can put the children of trafficking survivors at risk too.

Here’s What is Needed

There is a need for more robust frameworks that provide clear guidelines on how families of potential trafficking victims can report their cases and access support without being criminalized or having to face discrimination. Family counseling on how best to support trafficking survivors’ reintegration can also be critical. Material assistance might be helpful in supporting families in the absence of their missing family member and help provide stability so that they don’t undergo unnecessary risks searching for their missing family member or become trafficked themselves as they try to fill the gaps in their situation. Finally, continued work with community leaders and partners to reduce the stigmatization and discrimination against trafficking survivors and their families is essential.

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