This study was carried out in Bangladesh and Cambodia to understand the experience of reintegration among trafficking survivors, what they think constitutes successful reintegration, and what they feel would best support them in their reintegration journeys. The research team conducted in-depth interviews of both male and female survivors which focused on the details of survivors’ personal experiences and perceptions of reintegration. All the survivors in this study ended up in trafficking after attempting to migrate for work. This study attempts to recentre the discussion of reintegration around survivors’ experiences as agents in shaping their own lives rather than from the perspective of providing services.
We learned that reintegration after trafficking involves reconnecting and negotiating one’s place in a social system. In response, we have taken care to present the findings from this study in the form of a holistic picture of reintegration as a system. Achieving success means managing multiple sets of interconnected issues simultaneously. Failure in one area can spill over into other areas, throwing successful reintegration off track.
Contrary to how reintegration is typically discussed in academic and grey literature, survivors tended to think about reintegration, primarily, as being able to survive, escape extreme poverty, and to achieve acceptance and connection within their families and societies. In general, they did not think about reintegration in terms of accessing specific resources, though material resources and support from service providers is indeed an important element in achieving success for most survivors. The key elements of successful reintegration, which can be seen in the system map (figure 1), are 1) financial health, 2) mental health, 3) connection with family, and 4) acceptance within society. The following paragraphs explain those elements and what we learned about supporting survivors to attain them.
Financial health is the ability to earn enough money and to escape or avoid debt. It is subject to complex feedback dynamics. Many survivors are from contexts of extreme poverty, meaning they faced an urgent need to earn enough to survive, which drove them to take risks in migrating illegally, leading to trafficking and even worse financial situations for themselves and families. It also implies that it is often impossible to achieve successful reintegration by returning to the original context of extreme poverty. Debt was revealed as a major factor inhibiting financial health, and the burden of debt remained over survivors’ heads keeping them from success even in situations where they had obtained decent work.
Survivors can be supported in attaining financial health by programmes that help them find work. Where employment opportunities are available, this may mean providing skills training, but training needs to be mindful of other simultaneous challenges. For example, if the area is experiencing economic decline, there may be no decent jobs available, and the survivor may need support migrating safely and legally to a place with opportunities. Additionally, survivors struggling with trauma or depression may not find it possible to attend trainings. Survivors who are not able to read may also avoid training programmes because the teaching materials may not be accessible, or they may face shame around their lack of literacy or education. Our evidence suggests that training and support programmes should be attuned to these multiple issues and seek approaches that can mitigate them. For example, while survivors struggling with mental health may avoid training programmes, it may be possible to support their mental health via skills training. We do not recommend making strong mental health a prerequisite for accessing livelihood support.
Mental health involves healing from the traumas of the trafficking experience. Survivors may experience low self-confidence, low levels of self-efficacy, and difficulties feeling comfortable in everyday social settings. Where survivors had experienced detention, criminal prosecution, or imprisonment, they may also experience a sense of guilt. Survivors may find psychosocial support and clinical forms of therapy helpful, but these must be done in culturally appropriate ways. Survivors may not be comfortable directly exploring mental health issues, and survivors from different countries will have their own ways of understanding and expressing their mental health issues, which are likely quite different from Western medicalised language.
Our evidence suggests that mental health can be supported by acceptance and support from family and communities. In Bangladesh, we spoke to survivors participating in mutual support groups, where survivors supported each other (especially where family and community support could not be counted on) and helped each other heal. Given the intersections between mental health and the other elements of successful reintegration, mental health may also be supported through attaining new skills, earning an income, and escaping extreme poverty.
Connection to Family
Maintaining or re-establishing a strong connection to family constitutes successful reintegration for many survivors. This may mean re-joining parents and siblings, or it may mean getting married and building one’s own family. Family is important to success in several ways. Rejection by family because of the stigma associated with trafficking can be a major inhibitor of success. We observed this to be somewhat more common in Bangladesh than Cambodia, and it is a very gendered phenomenon – usually it is women who are rejected.
Survivors’ economic prospects are also usually bound up with their families’. Families often take on debt to finance a person’s efforts to work abroad. When the family member ends up in trafficking, this can exacerbate the hardships of the family. Where possible, interventions should attempt to support whole families, for example with livelihoods trainings or programmes to support literacy, life skills, and financial awareness.
Acceptance within Society
Successful reintegration also means achieving acceptance within society. Survivors typically face some forms of discrimination and stigma from others in their communities. These may not always be directly the result of their trafficking experiences, per se, but rather the ways in which their experiences prevent them from conforming to gendered social norms. To support acceptance for survivors, it may be possible to make use of helpful social or cultural values (i.e. the value of endurance and hard work) to counter unhelpful norms. Efforts to raise awareness (at any scale from communities to nation-wide campaigns) about the nature of trafficking can change perceptions and attitudes toward survivors. Finding ways to support survivors in telling their own stories – for example in small groups, to their communities, or even in a public forum or on the internet – can help build understanding, humanise survivors, and impart a sense of agency and visibility to the survivors telling their stories.
In the effort to support survivors on their journeys of reintegration, it is important to keep the focus on their experiences and their visions of success. This report highlights the main elements of success according to the survivors interviewed in Cambodia and Bangladesh. The key insight is that each element of success is tied up with the others in a complex and systemic relationship. This creates the potential for a feedback loop, which may either keep the survivor trapped in a downward spiral or can help leverage success in one element into success in the others. Working closely with survivors and remaining attuned to those linkages may be the best way to support survivors achieve successful reintegration.
Read full report here.