29 July 2021

Living on the coast of Belgium, I have witnessed thousands of migrants arriving in nearby Calais, France. I was profoundly shocked by the vulnerability of these refugees and migrants, especially the women and unaccompanied minors, who are most at risk of becoming victims of human traffickers. Many people think that human trafficking is taking place in dark alleys. They don’t believe that this crime is committed in their country or neighbourhood, but it happens worldwide and is all too present around all of us.

Since becoming a Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime in 2015, I have learned more about the complexity and different forms of human trafficking. For example, many of us may think that this crime only affects women and girls. While it’s true that female victims tend to be trafficked for sexual exploitation, men and boys can become victims, too, but they are largely trafficked for forced labour. Some victims are forced to work in factories, on construction sites, or in the agricultural sector for little or no pay, living in fear of violence and often in inhumane conditions. Others are exploited and forced to commit crimes ranging from pickpocketing to drug trafficking. But there are also other, even more horrific forms of human trafficking, such as the selling of babies or trafficking for organ removal.

Even today, people are being used as commodities both online and in the physical world. I was shocked to learn that human trafficking hasn’t slowed during the COVID-19 crisis but has rather moved online. The pandemic-induced recession has further widened disparities in our societies and deepened economic inequalities, leaving millions of women, children and men worldwide at risk of being trafficked. The Internet, social media and newer technologies facilitate the abuse of victims, especially when it comes to sharing material related to the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. But we can all help to prevent and end these atrocities. We must listen to survivors who managed to escape their abusers and successfully found their way back into society, as they can provide us with unique insights into this crime. They know the tricks traffickers use to recruit, exploit and control victims, and which groups of people they prey on. Therefore, survivor engagement is key in the fight against human trafficking—from awareness-raising to prevention and identification, from rescue to recovery and rehabilitation.

Every year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime identifies a theme for the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, observed on 30 July. This year’s theme, “Victims’ Voices Lead the Way”, highlights the importance of listening to and learning from survivors of human trafficking. Survivors need to be part of the decision-making process to overcome inadequate measures in the fight against human trafficking and the lack of sufficient victim support. Empowered survivors can become leading advocates in the fight against human trafficking.

The author, Ozark Henry. Photo courtesy of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

I’ll never forget when, two years ago, I had the opportunity to meet girls from Kamathipura, the red-light district in Mumbai, India. These girls were daughters of sex workers or survivors of sex trafficking themselves. Through their theatre performances they shared their stories with wider audiences to foster change in their communities. The resilience of these women, some of whom were as young as thirteen, was overwhelming and inspiring. This experience strengthened my conviction that music and art can play a decisive role in the fight against trafficking. It can positively influence societies, help raise awareness of social and political issues and give a voice to the invisible. Art creates connection, speaks to our emotions and touches the core of our humanity. Art can transcend barriers imposed by politics and language. Music and storytelling are highly effective ways of communicating, sharing emotions and sparking empathy.

Growing knowledge about human trafficking and increased awareness among the general public are critical to the prevention of this horrible crime. But such measures alone are not enough. We also need to call on our governments and criminal justice systems to strengthen prevention policies, bring perpetrators to justice, and protect victims and provide them with adequate support on their path to rehabilitation. Ending human trafficking also requires support from the private sector to ensure a supply chain free from exploitation, and civil society must assume an active role in fighting this abhorrent practice.

The United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking supports the work of non-governmental organizations worldwide so that they can provide victims with shelter, counselling, medical and psychological health services, rehabilitation programmes, legal assistance and support for job placement and financial literacy training. Anyone can support the Trust Fund through its online donation platform at www.unodc.org/unvtf.

Together we can end the crime of human trafficking, with survivors leading the way.

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