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Understanding Trafficking As a Spectrum
March 30, 2022

For the sake of ease, discussion about trafficking tends to revolve around categories: labor trafficking, child trafficking, sex trafficking, etc. Another way to think of trafficking is as part of a spectrum of abuse and exploitation (concept courtesy of a legal training hosted by The Remedy Project, USAID Asia CTIP, and USAID Thailand CTIP). On one end, there is decent work that follows international and national laws and is undertaken with free, willing, and informed consent. On the other end is slavery. In the middle, there could be work that is harsh but does not violate regulations. Or there could be labor violations that are subject to penalties and fines. Then there is work that has elements of fraud, deception, or coercion which starts to get into the territory of human trafficking and forced labor. While the extreme ends of the spectrum are quite clear, the middle can get very difficult to properly identify, define, measure, or prosecute because real-life scenarios are complex and often don’t fit into neat categories.

Let’s Talk About the Extreme Ends of the Spectrum

On the free end, when a person accepts a job offer, they understand what they’re getting into, they choose it freely with no coercion, and they have complete freedom to leave.

In real-life cases, exploitation looks like:

  • Not receiving payments for work done
  • Someone else having control over your identification documents
  • Threats to you or your family if you complain, try to leave, or go to the police
  • Blackmail to keep you stuck in this relationship
  • Actual violence or physical force used if you complain, try to leave, or go to the police

That kind of exploitation is clear. 

But Not All Forms of Exploitation Are So Clear. Let’s Talk About Cases in The Middle.

Because so many cases of trafficking and exploitation were initially rooted in relationships of trust, they don’t, on the surface, look like abuse. Trafficking and exploitation can look like someone pretending to be your protector, like a big brother or sister being kind to you, even as they subject you to exploitative labor. They make sure you’re fed and your needs are met, and they say kind things to you. But you still cannot leave and you still must do things you wouldn’t otherwise choose to do.

Or it can look like something to which the victim consented. Because victims may have consented to earlier stages of exploitation, they and the trafficker both use that to justify what happens to them later.

This kind of exploitation makes it very difficult for victims of trafficking to understand themselves as victims. Traffickers often use these kinds of rationales to justify their behavior even to themselves. They might argue that they’re actually helping the victims. Many traffickers come from similar backgrounds as their victims–poor, less educated, ethnic minorities, etc.–and this activity provides them with income. Some argue that they were only trying to offer these victims the same opportunity to earn money that they had.

Cases in this messy middle can also be challenging to pursue in court. For example, according to international legal frameworks, trafficking is defined in a 3-part structure: the act (what was done) + the means (how it was done) + the intent (for what purpose it was done). It can be challenging to prove in a court of law, beyond a reasonable doubt, what a trafficker intended, especially if there’s little evidence beyond the victim’s testimony. A recruiter might claim they thought the job offer was legitimate and that they didn’t know trafficking would happen at the end destination. A driver might claim he had no idea he was involved in trafficking; he was just giving someone a ride. 

The other implication is that trafficking victims may have very different needs in their rehabilitation. Some may want to immediately return home and decline to pursue the case in court, especially if the process is prolonged and difficult. There are cases from other countries where victims may even accept charges of illegal migration rather than status as trafficking victims because it means they’ll get home faster. Others are very committed to their cases and want to see it through to the end, but depending on the level of exploitation, need varying degrees of psychological support. Some victims need a lot of support and a safe place to stay because it’s not safe to go home, either due to social stigmas or because they would be at risk of being trafficked again. Others need a lot of support when they return home, and feel they have to lie about what happened to them because they feel so much shame. Some need support with language barriers, others need support with legal status to repatriate to their home countries. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to handle trafficking cases. 

The Good News About Prevention

Our mission is to prevent child sex trafficking and that remains our guiding light, especially for identifying the children most at risk. But what makes children vulnerable to sex trafficking remains the same factors that make people vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation. Poverty, lack of education, social isolation–in essence, the financial or emotional desperation that pushes people into riskier ventures. Alleviating these factors, raising awareness about what constitutes risk, and providing the support necessary to make safer pathways actually feasible have the potential to protect children from a much wider variety of ways people might try to take advantage of them. Rehabilitation is incredibly complex and costly. We believe in the power of prevention.