Every year, countless people become victims of human trafficking. The number is countless because the vast majority of those cases go unidentified and unreported. As a result, victims remain invisible, go unsupported, continue to suffer abuses, and continue to face stigma and trauma even after finding their way out of trafficking. This lack of visibility also makes it difficult to really understand how trafficking works, which seriously hinders international counter trafficking efforts.
In light of the persistent challenges to identifying victims of trafficking, we undertook this study to review what is known about the barriers to identification and to learn from victims and identifying authorities how identification tends to happen when it is successful. We made use of ongoing research partnerships with researchers and NGOs who work with survivors of trafficking in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Taiwan to interview 112 people across the three countries, including 39 victims of trafficking who were able to tell us about their experiences navigating the process of identification.
Our interviews confirmed many of the challenges that have been documented in the literature. Victims tend to be vulnerable after trafficking, experience trauma and other emotional struggles that can make it difficult to come to terms with their experiences and be willing to take part in arduous formal processes related to identification. They have good reason to doubt that state officials and legal systems will prioritize their interests; many victims tend to be treated as criminals when encountered by law enforcement or border control.
Our interviews also confirmed many of the challenges facing state agencies and authorities which have been documented in the literature. Laws remain ambiguous and the protection of victims often competes for attention and resources with other obligations such as prosecuting criminals and ensuring border control. Frontline workers in police, border control, and consular offices tend not to be sufficiently trained in their options and obligations to identify victims, and they often face pushback when trying. Frontline NGO workers, who are also typically authorized to identify victims and provide services, tend to be underfunded and lack the means to fully protect victims or help them achieve justice.
In synthesizing these two perspectives, we suggest that identification should not be considered a single event, nor something that authorities do to victims. Rather, we suggest it be conceived of as a “delicate dance” between victim and identifying authority. Both victim and authority must be proactively engaged. Both have agency, but that agency tends to be constrained in both cases by symmetrical sets of reinforcing challenges. This conceptualization helps to synthesize what sometimes appears to be incompatible perspectives in the literature, and it helps to reframe the issues of victim identification as issues of complex systems rather than individual actors.
That is to say, successful identification of victims is so difficult to achieve because the systems involved have mechanisms that keep victims and supporting/identifying authorities physically apart, facing sets of incentives that are at odds with identification, and operating according to different institutional arrangements and social norms. To understand how identification happens, when it happens, we looked at successful cases to identify ways both sides were creatively able to find pathways for overcoming these systemic challenges. It is our hope that, by articulating the ways victims and authorities can and sometimes do work within and around the system to find each other, we can illuminate or inspire opportunities to intervene.
Some of the most interesting observations that flow from this analysis are as follows. Firstly, because of the inefficient and ineffective dynamics of formal complaint mechanisms and formal reporting channels, victims tend to seek help (and to some extent, identification) through informal connections and networks. In the first instance, where victims are being held in trafficking conditions, they will often attempt to reach out to family. These days, this often happens via social media or internet- based communications, rather than traditional telephones. Many victims report being more comfortable online and on social media than with telephones. Further, if family is unavailable, many victims will reach out to neighbors or social contacts from their home country or even look for a broker – potentially brokers that also engage in trafficking.
In many cases, these neighbors and brokers help victims reach home or reach safety, but this does not mean they will get identified. In many other cases, these contacts end up further exploiting the victims by selling them on to other traffickers. It is not surprising that victims with few good options will take risky chances to escape or get help. What is surprising is that a) informal connections including brokers do facilitate victims’ escape, fulfilling an important function in the system as it is, and b) that most of the literature and top-down thinking on identification fails to account for these informal mechanisms. This also implies that formal complaint mechanisms like hotlines do not tend to work. Their formal nature as well as the fact that they are implicated in the unhelpful functions of the formal system mean that victims usually do not use them, and when they do, they do not tend to get identified.
While we stop short of offering substantial policy recommendations in this report, we suggest that interventions must be aware of the systemic structures and dynamics at work, which will lead to potentially unexpected impacts of efforts to create change. The difficulties of victim identification are not caused by unhelpful victims or lazy authorities. They are caused by entrenched systems of inequalities and exploitations, where different actors play different roles, both shaped by and reinforcing the ways the system works. Both victims and authorities behave as they do for good reasons. To better facilitate victims and authorities encountering each other in effective identification, we will need to change the conditions that shape the incentives and possibilities for action. This is a long-term aspiration, but in the short term, we can see that helping create opportunities for both victims and authorities to interact informally, to build trust, and to find ways to relate to each other can help individuals find their own pathways.
Every year, countless people face situations of exploitation and abuse that constitute trafficking in persons (TIP). Even as governments take action to raise the profile of TIP issues and foster collaboration through the UN and other international platforms to reduce trafficking, protect people who are vulnerable, and provide care and support to survivors, trafficking remains a key challenge of our time. One aspect of TIP that makes it so challenging to address is that, by nature, it tends to be invisible. Even as it happens all around us, it happens in the shadows and margins.
We may safely assume that for every victim identified, there are countless others who remain invisible. It is estimated that more than 40 million people today are the victims of modern slavery (Ministry of Home Affairs, 2018, p. 1). However, the 2021 Trafficking in Persons report (US Department of State, 2021) notes that less than 110,000 victims have been identified, with less than 10,000 prosecutions. Such a low rate of victim identification presents obvious challenges to the work of counter trafficking, meaning that many traffickers continue to operate with impunity. To have hope of ending trafficking, we desperately need more effective identification of victims and more stringent measures for ensuring their safe removal from abusive situations (International Labour Organization et al., 2017).
We are interested in exploring how victims of trafficking could be more effectively and more frequently identified. To this end, we designed our research project to find out how victims of human trafficking tend to get identified, when they do.
What can we learn from cases of successful identification about how to overcome barriers to identification? What do patterns in successful identification reveal about the systemic challenges and the potential of pathways towards more effective victim identification? This study examines the process of identification, from the victim’s experiences coming to terms with what has happened to them and choosing to seek assistance to frontline authorities’ experiences recognizing and responding to victims in order to provide them support.
The prevailing conceptualization of victim identification, compatible with the Palermo Protocol’s definitions of trafficking, assumes a set of actors that are authorized to identify victims, and it implies a set of referral mechanisms that should follow to facilitate the identified victim in realizing their rights and entitlements through channels of support. In reality, each country has its own unique legal and organizational structures for identifying victims (including ways in which victims can make themselves known), and there are many challenges to actually achieving the mandated support once identification happens.
To make clearer sense of these complex systemic challenges to identification, we have developed a conceptualization of the identification process. This conceptualization reframes identification away from a top-down authority-centered view, towards seeing it more as a delicate dance by both victims and authorities. In this view, both sides must engage in order to overcome their respective barriers and to encounter each other in a substantially collaborative act that validates victims’ experiences and makes the state and non-government support accessible.
We use this new conceptualization to make sense of the literature on victim identification and the trove of stories we collected from victims and frontline authorities in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Taiwan. The following sections explain our research methods, reflect on the limitations of our study, and present an overview of the report.
Read full report here.