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Ways Victims Get Re-Victimized
August 1, 2019

Part I of a 2-part series

This Tuesday was World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, and on the UNODC’s website, they discussed this year’s theme of a call to government action arising from victims being criminalized while perpetrators walk free. This is a re-victimization of people who have already suffered in tremendous ways–sometimes at the hands of law enforcement, the very people meant to help.

In today’s post, we’ll begin a 2-part series: first, how law enforcement may end up re-victimizing survivors of trafficking, and the second part, how some law enforcement (for example FBI, Homeland Security, and TICAC of the Royal Thai Police) have developed tactics called a “victim-centered approach” that helps prevent further suffering on the part of trafficking victims and survivors. Hopefully, as knowledge of best practices and pressure on governments spread, other law enforcement forces and agencies around the world will adopt a similar approach.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at some of the ways trafficking victims may be subjected to undue harm.

Three Ways Victims Can Get Re-Victimized

Not Being Believed

There are many difficulties barring a child victim’s way in telling authorities they’ve been trafficked. Most children don’t know what the word “trafficking” is or what it means, so cannot identify it as such. Furthermore, many child trafficking victims come into contact with law enforcement when they’re stopped in transit with false documents or encountered in a raid against prostitution and the barrier for providing proof that they were duped or coerced proves too high.

Despite it being outside their control when they were brought into the country illegally by their traffickers, they’re often treated as if it were their decision.

“When they encounter the authorities, the likelihood of being believed is balanced against their immigration status. As a result, their cases are often received with at best scepticism and at worst a strong rebuke that they should not have come here to scrounge off our benefits. The strong message is: you are an illegal immigrant first and a human being last.” (Source: The Guardian)

As a study of children trafficked in the U.K. reveals, “Despite ongoing service involvement, the majority of young people in this study were never accepted as having been trafficked by the Home Office or Children Services. In Hayley’s view, she was never believed to have been trafficked, due to a lack of proof, to disprove the commonly held assumptions about the propensity of migrants lying, ‘because, for them it’s like, as long as we cannot see any proof we don’t believe you’ve been trafficked … The lady was telling ‘a lot of kids make up things, so part of it is you, you, you’re one of those that probably made up things what happened to you’.’ (Hayley)” (Source: The British Journal of Criminology)

Insensitive questioning

Another problem that arises is the entire interview, investigation, and prosecution process, when law enforcement officials haven’t been trained in a victim-centered approach. For many victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation, talking about their experience forces them to relive in their minds what they went through, and this can be another form of trauma.

When people suffer from PTSD, as is common with child sex trafficking victims, any reminder of what they’ve experienced can feel strongly like they’re experiencing it all over again. They may experience flashbacks, where it feels as though the abuse is actually happening all over again. Or they may have intense emotions or physical sensations (like heart pounding, difficulty breathing, feeling faint, etc.). (Source: Psychology Today)

If law enforcement aren’t sufficiently trained to handle this kind of case, they may find themselves not only asking questions that are insensitively phrased. They may end up having to circle back to the victim as the case develops to ask more questions and investigate more deeply to get the information they need for a prosecutable case. Every time this process is repeated, the victim is forced to remember and relive their abuse.


Of course, the worst is when the victims are not seen as victims at all, but instead as criminals. When law enforcement catches a minor selling sex, no matter the circumstances, the child should be seen as a victim. But too often this is not the case – the child is treated as a prostitute. Since prostitution is illegal, these child victims face jail time instead of rescue and restitution. If law enforcement aren’t careful about digging into the specifics of a trafficking case, and how a victim might have been forced, or coerced into illegal activity, it’s far too easy for the victim to present as a criminal and for blame to fall on them for their predicament. Far too often, the children are transferred into youth or even adult incarceration facilities.

The result is, despite decades’ worth of attention brought to human trafficking, child trafficking victims are often treated as the enemy, leaving them feeling even more unprotected and at further risk.


Thankfully, several law enforcement agencies and forces have developed an alternative approach: a victim-centered one. Stay tuned next week to learn more about this approach and how it addresses these problems in a much more effective way!

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