Dr Chloe Wilson
University of Hull
Dr Chloe Wilson, recently awarded her doctorate for her investigation of the specific experiences of victims of human trafficking in England, shares some of her key findings.
Considering the treatment of victims by organisations in the United Kingdom [UK], particularly in the immediate aftermath of their initial identification, is key to restoring the victim voice. The very nature of the trafficking experience means that victims ‘lose their voice’, from the moment they are trafficked, to their eventual release (if applicable). Broadly, a lost victim voice relates to the individual inability to express the harm caused by a crime, or a criminal. This may occur due to trauma, which can greatly impact victim confidence. A further consideration (alongside the victim voice) is the disposable nature of individual victims. This is a term coined by Kevin Bales: a disposable person is a new type of victim, targeted as a cheap, replaceable commodity. Both of these concepts are particularly interesting when looking at the ways in which victims interact with organisations in the UK when they have been identified. The whole process relies on a level of cooperation from a victim, without which they cannot progress through the system. A disposable victim with a lost voice may be hard to support as they are often hurt, confused and afraid. These considerations emerge from a fundamental issue: the way victims of human trafficking are treated by organisations in the UK.
Victims have varied experiences, which can be split into two categories:
- Physical experiences, such as sexual or physical abuse, pregnancy, abortion, or illness.
- Psychological experiences, which affect the victim’s mental state and wellbeing, such as stress, psychological torture, emotional abuse and manipulation.
These two areas are not independent of one another – research shows that there is a significant crossover from one to the other for many victims.
The victim journey itself includes a number of substantial milestones, such as initial contact with a trafficker, arrival in the UK or destination city and exploitation. In the latter stages of their journey, as victims come into contact with the UK authorities or charity services, it is the variability of their experience that is notable.
- How are they treated?
- As a victim or as an offender?
- Do they receive help initially?
- Is there immediate support available to them?
These considerations are directly linked to government frameworks, which are in place to offer support to victims and to aid practitioners. This should provide an indication of the victim’s on-going treatment and the way the authorities may be able to improve the victim experience, in turn helping their recovery and rehabilitation.
Many external factors contribute to the lost victim voice. Many victims who have been trafficked into the UK are transported from foreign countries, meaning they have been separated from their home, family and culture. Not only have they been exploited and abused in some way, they are also very alone in a foreign place. This is a traumatic experience for the trafficked victim – the loneliness and fear of being so far away from their home and their family. This isolation can often manifest as guilt, with the victims blaming themselves for what has happened. Many feel they could have avoided the situation or that they were wrong to have initially trusted their traffickers. These feelings can be exaggerated by the captors who are likely to reinforce this message, telling the victims that they are to blame and that their families are suffering because of them.
Moving away from the trauma victims experience whilst they are being trafficked, focusing on the initial contact between victim and first-responder, is key to improving the victim experience and empowering them to regain their lost voice. Working with organisations to improve their services and ensure victim treatment is at the forefront of their agenda is a critical first step. Reaching across the globe to consider alternative approaches to victim treatment can also provide insight into best practice. In 2012, Unicef conducted a study of Nordic responses to child trafficking, with particular focus on assisting victims within the destination country. The paper considered the practical issues faced by child victims travelling thousands of miles to a new country and a new culture. Unicef suggests ways in which the experience might be improved for young victims, such as providing budgets, setting up institutions and creating action plans. It acknowledged that the progress made across the United Nations, in aiding victims and ensuring they are not left unprotected, has been slow. In short, this can be attributed to a lack of cooperative working between the organisations that are involved.
My research identifies substantive links between the lost victim voice and a lack of cooperation between organisations, highlighting the need for a more joined-up approach to provide the best possible support for victims of human trafficking. Drawing links with care for children in the UK and the notorious Victoria Climbie Case allowed me to develop an ‘Every Victim Matters’ approach. This idea focuses on multi-agency cooperation through the use of a Modern Slavery Key Worker. It is suggested that increased communication and accountability from organisations, alongside a consistent point of contact for the victim, would substantially improve the victim experience. ‘Every Victim Matters’ would improve the treatment of victims, enhance the victim experience and empower the victim voice.