Cultural Considerations in Identifying Human Trafficking Victims

Cultural Considerations in Identifying Human Trafficking Victims

Cultural Considerations in Identifying Human Trafficking Victims

Police Officer Margaret Shelley responded to a tripped alarm in an affluent suburban neighborhood.  She surveyed the house for any broken windows or forced doors and eventually approached the house to find a young woman inside.  The woman appeared to be South Asian in origin.  She kept her eyes to the ground, shook her head and said again and again, “Sorry sir, mistake.  Sorry, sir, mistake.  I work here. Please help me.” She seemed afraid.

Officer Shelley decided that the young woman was telling the truth and so she filed her report and got back into her car.  After driving four blocks, she pulled over and stopped. “Wait a minute,” she said to herself. “That woman was asking for help.  How could she have tripped the alarm if she were already inside the house? Unless she was locked in.”

She turned the car around and drove back to the house.

Multicultural Case Studies

Is the woman in this story a trafficking victim?  We don’t know yet.  Although the Officer is observant enough to decide to return to the house, there are still a series of cultural barriers that she and the young woman will need to navigate in order to get to the truth.

Our cultural values influence how we perceive a situation, how we understand our options, how we interact with our surroundings and how we communicate with others.  These values are part of our “design for living. ” However, we are often unaware of our own values, and they can be difficult to articulate. Many who have been trafficked come from cultural contexts that are very different from the context of their destination, and their circumstances and imprisonment further isolate them.

Our understanding of identity, communication, power, our environment, and even time can be shaped by our culture.  For example, someone may come from a culture where she is taught that she has control over her environment, that the she creates her own destiny. Another person may have been taught that life is controlled by fate or is in God’s hands. A third person may fall somewhere along that continuum, or may feel in control of some things and not of others.

Translate this into a trafficking situation, and you may find that the young woman who tripped the alarm believes that her circumstance is due to a mistake in a past life.  She might see her enslavement as repaying that debt. She may believe that if she does not clear her debt, it will only come back to haunt her in future lives. As a result of this belief, she may not be as willing to report her trafficker, much less seek rescue even if the abuse she is suffering is extreme. Perhaps in this case, the young woman is struggling with these ideas and so she trips the alarm, but then can’t bring herself to ask for help directly.

Some cultures value blunt, direct communication, while others teach people to soften the blow and save face. If the young woman in this case has been taught to communicate indirectly, she might not say she is a slave, but rather complain of a stomach or back problem, for example.  She might ask for a hospital or a referral to a doctor.  If the Officer was raised to expect candid, frank information, she could miss important clues and the true root of the problem may never emerge.

Some cultures teach their children that all human beings are equal – and even if their actions do not match up to that ideal, that is a professed value. Other cultures are very comfortable with hierarchy and believe that some people, groups, or families are to be treated with more respect due to their status. If this young woman is trapped as a domestic servant in a high status family from her own country, she might be less likely to report them if she has been raised to honor their station in society. She could feel it is a betrayal – as though she is betraying her own parents.

Likewise, if she was also taught that the collective good is more important than her own individual welfare, she would be reluctant to seek help because it would shame not only this one family but reflect badly on all her fellow countrymen and women, or on a particular ethnic group within a country, if she shares that with her traffickers.

This is just one illustration of how cultural values can serve to further hide or trap people who have been trafficked. Culture is not static or fixed in one place. We all move along the continuum of values, depending on circumstances. A particular culture may be very collective in one regard, and very individualistic in another, for example. Being aware of culture patterns does not mean we should stereotype. While cultures do tend to have general shared patterns, there are always exceptions and all individuals are influenced by multiple factors. Stereotyping freezes a member of a group, making harmful and counter-productive assumptions about the values he or she holds and the motivations that influence behavior.

If anything, this discussion of culture should remind us to always be challenging our own assumptions, particularly if we are working toward dismantling trafficking. It is only when we look beyond the obvious that we will begin to be able to analyze complex situations and form the relationships necessary to enable providers and survivors to work together effectively.


Laura Shipler Chico, MSW. is a freelance writer and author of Assisting Survivors of Human Trafficking: Multicultural Case Studies. She lives in London.


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