The nexus between human trafficking and addiction is one we’ve touched on tangentially, but it’s worth taking a more intentional look. Drug addiction threads itself into making someone more vulnerable to trafficking, it plays a role in keeping a person stuck in trafficking, and it complicates chances of recovery after exploitation.
Addiction Abetting Vulnerability
Drug addictions are expensive, and keeping the addiction fed costs money. The more addicted a person is, the more likely they are to engage in increasingly risky behaviors to obtain the drug at any cost–lie, cheat, steal…or sell their bodies.
“People who are taken into the human trafficking system are often coerced into doing drugs because they already had substance abuse problems to begin with (and those substance abuse issues were used as leverage to get the individual to enter the sex trade or slave trade).” (Source: Narconon)
Addiction as a Form of Coercion and Control
If a victim was not already addicted to drugs before their exploitation, traffickers might use drugs to control their victims and keep them stuck in the exploitative situation. “Jordan was not addicted to drugs before meeting her trafficker, Andrew Fields. Andrew told Jordan he would help her get off of the streets. Instead, he illegally bought Roxicodone, Xanax, Methadone, and Somas, and gave them to Jordan until he drove her into an addiction. Once Jordan began experiencing symptoms of drug withdrawal, Andrew forced her to perform commercial sex acts to get more drugs. Authorities who pressed charges found nearly 9,000 prescription pills in his home.” (Source: Trafficking Matters) Doing what the traffickers demand gets the victim relieves the pain of withdrawal, and keeps them in the traffickers control.
Drug and alcohol use can also be a coping mechanism to help the victim endure their exploitation. However, the numbing effect which makes the situation more bearable also impacts their memory. This affects the victim-survivor’s ability to later recall events, thus calling into question their reliability as a witness in prosecution–thus creating an extra, obvious hurdle for justice, especially as many victims are treated as criminals for prostitution, drug charges, and other crimes they might have committed while trafficked.
Nevertheless, for professionals in the medical industry, it’s important to be aware that drug addiction can be a red flag for a possible trafficking situation, and can be masked as schizophrenia or other mental disorder to explain away the disordered symptoms the victim presents. “Opioids in particular are an effective coercion tool for traffickers because they numb both emotional and physical pain; clinicians have noted clear links between the current US opioid epidemic and trafficking. Some traffickers recruit directly from substance use disorder treatment facilities. Moreover, high rates of opioid-overdose death underscore the potentially lethal consequences of an opioid addiction for trafficked persons. Therefore, as in this case, opioid addiction in and of itself may be a red flag for clinicians to screen for trafficking.” (Source: AMA Journal of Ethics) To that end, health care professionals should familiarize themselves with the signs, how to practice trauma-informed care, and how to report per state requirements.
Addiction Compounds Difficulty in Escaping Trafficking
Providing adequate support to trafficking survivors is critical to successful reintegration into society. The more a survivor is penalized for their trafficking and exploitation, the more difficult it becomes for them to reintegrate and also the more likely it is they might return to trafficking. However, addiction problems complicate this. “Human trafficking survivors also face many challenges reintegrating into society, and these challenges are only exacerbated by lingering substance abuse issues. Residential facilities often have policies against substance use or abuse. These policies can make treatment hard to find and leave many survivors with substance abuse issues homeless. Even if survivors are not charged with crimes at the time they are found, those who remain addicted will likely have criminal records from continued drug use. Criminal convictions have a myriad of collateral consequences, including job restrictions, the loss of the right to vote, and potential deportation for non-citizens.” (Source: Trafficking Matters)
Survivors suffering with drug dependencies need support weaning themselves off the addiction. This may include programmatic support like AA, cognitive behavioral therapy, or drugs like methadone that have proven effective in aiding against addiction, but can be costly, bear their own stigmas, and which obviously would need to be taken under the advice and guidance of a healthcare professional.
Survivors also need the help of therapists as they begin the long process of healing from trauma. It’s important to recognize that trauma can come from addiction as well as from trafficking. “It is not uncommon to face feelings of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the forced activities and dependence on substances.” (Source: The Recovery Village) Healing from the various layers of trauma is necessary to help keep a survivor safe for their future.