One would assume that upon rescue and rehabilitation after being trafficked, that survivors would jump at the chance to go home and return to their former lives. However, the trafficking situation can be so life-altering, that sometimes, this just isn’t the case. Here are some reasons why:
Many victims fear facing their families again due to shame. Any association with sex work, or even with being duped into labor trafficking induces so much shame for many survivors, that they can’t bear to go home. This may be especially true for families that are very religious or in cultures that place a high value on things like family honor. However, even families that would be desperate to welcome their person back with open arms have to contend with this. It is one of the most heart-wrenching things to hear, in that first call back home, a survivor breaking down in tears and telling their family over and over, “I’m so sorry.” Being trafficked is not their fault–and yet, many feel they are to blame, and sometimes apologies feel like the only thing they can offer to say to bridge the gap from having been gone, and knowing what it must have put their families through.
They’re Still Stuck
Sometimes, survivors plan to go home, but there are still loose ends to complete where they are. If they’re pursuing legal justice or cooperating with law enforcement to prosecute their traffickers, it can take many months, or more, for their case to make it through the courts. In the meantime, they need to find a way to make a living where they are and find secure housing. Or they have been so battered by trafficking and suffer from complex traumas, or drug addictions, or have a pregnancy, and they simply need more time and help to pull their lives back together. All of this is already complicated for domestic trafficking survivors, but it’s even more so for those who were trafficked across international borders.
They’ve Moved On
Other times, trafficking survivors have been trafficked for so long, they’ve developed a whole new life for themselves: found a family, borne children, set up a home. Even if they want to go home, they’ve coped and made new roots–and if it’s in a whole new country, and it would be too hard to leave again. Home, for them, isn’t home anymore. Sometimes they’ve been gone so long, or were so young when they left, they don’t even speak their native language anymore.
Home is Too Dangerous
In some cases, going back home might put the survivor back at risk of trafficking or at risk of retaliation from the traffickers.
The Need for Legal Protection: T-Visas
When international trafficking victims don’t want to or can’t go home, they need some lawful way to be able to stay where they are safe. Allowing lawful immigration status is in the state’s interest, too, to encourage victims to cooperate with the prosecution process and provide the crucial witness testimony needed for successful prosecution. It’s a valuable tool to help trafficking victims understand and trust that law enforcement officials will get them to safety. The more victims that are willing to come forward and the more detailed testimony they’re willing to provide, the better data officials have, too, on how trafficking is happening. Conversely, harsh treatment does not incentivize cooperation.
In the U.S., this special status is offered in the form of T-Visas. These visas are specifically for victims of severe human trafficking who’ve cooperated with law inforcement on the investigation or prosecution of a trafficking case. It allows victims to stay and work in the country for 4 years, and receive access to certain benefits like food, housing, and medical assistance. In some cases, it can be renewed, or after 3 years (or after the investigation/prosecution is complete), it might be possible to apply for lawful permanent residence.
The T-Visa was first introduced by the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, and it has been upheld by every administration since. (To give a sense of scale, records show fewer than a thousand or two cases processed per year–including victims and families of victims.) However, in recent years, though the letter of the law remains unchanged, anti-trafficking organizations and lawyers say that the administrative hurdles to clear have been increasing. They claim that: processing times for the visas had reportedly increased to nearly 3 years (we checked this and it currently states an estimated wait period of 18 to 27 months), significantly fewer have been approved while more evidence is required, and even the 2019 U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Person’s Report says that funding has been cut from expunging records of crimes (like prostitution) committed because of being trafficked. Meanwhile, there had been an announcement that those who have been denied the T visa might then be required to appear in immigration court and be subject to deportation. To those who believe in strict policies against any immigrant with a criminal record and immigrant access to state-funded benefits, this would sound reasonable, but it does have a chilling effect on willingness to cooperate in penalizing and helping end trafficking when cooperation incurs such high risk.
Even if everything goes well, that’s a long time to have to sit in stressful bureaucratic limbo. What can or should a trafficked person do to contribute positively to society without a lawful license to work while they wait for their case to be decided? These policy minutiae might sound incredibly complex for most people, and often don’t fit neatly into partisan narratives, but they have a really profound impact on the lived experiences of trafficking survivors and the extent to which they feel helped or further abused.