29 July 2021

All of us have hopes and dreams. Some are trying to find a good home; some want to secure a particular job or position; others pray for a regular income that will enable them to survive and support their family. Some people are desperately looking for ways to leave a war zone and seek safe shelter for themselves and their loved ones, while still others strive to break away from oppressive social and traditional norms.

Our ambitions lead us to look out for change and opportunities. We often get what we aim for, but other times we are thrown back. For victims of human trafficking, however, a shattered dream is more than a setback—it can be a terrifying nightmare of the worst kind.

Traffickers seek out highly vulnerable and often desperate people and offer them opportunities tailored to their needs and aspirations. This could be a job offer, the chance to study, a way out of war, or the possibility of escaping extreme poverty through the sale of a bodily organ. Eventually, traffickers turn these alleged opportunities into nightmares of control, be it through open violence, threats or other means of exploitation. Not all trafficking cases, however, start off with deception based on the victim’s aspirations; many are simply captured and exploited. What trafficking cases have in common is that the victims—men, women and children—are controlled, abused and exploited, causing them serious harm.

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000, was the first international treaty to define the crime of human trafficking. It requires States to ensure that the victims of trafficking are protected and assisted in attaining safety and recovering physically, psychologically and socially. Ideally, victims become survivors who are safe and empowered, and have reasonable prospects of achieving their dreams and hopes.

The Assembly continues to place the protection of victims high on its agenda. In resolution 64/293 of 30 July 2010, it adopted the Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons, which, among other provisions, urges States to strengthen their protection and assistance measures and offer proposals on how this should be done. The Global Plan of Action also established the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, managed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The Trust Fund provides humanitarian, legal and financial aid to victims of trafficking in persons through established channels of assistance; that is, it issues grants through small grants programmes to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs play an important role in supporting survivors of trafficking and preventing others from falling victim, as they are often able to reach vulnerable people and gain their trust more easily than State authorities. The Trust Fund currently assists more than 5,000 victims every year in over 50 countries around the globe.

In 2007, the General Assembly established the Inter-Agency Coordination Group Against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT) to foster a comprehensive approach to preventing and combating human trafficking, including protection and support for victims. As of July 2021, ICAT comprises 30 entities that draw on their unique mandates and expertise to ensure that all trafficked persons—women, men, girls and boys who have been abused in various ways, including through sexual or labour exploitation, child begging, forced criminality and organ removal—receive protection. Through ICAT, the United Nations exemplifies and promotes a holistic approach to tackling trafficking, providing protection and assistance to victims. These victims are not just pieces of evidence in a criminal case; they are people. The Trafficking in Persons Protocol stipulates that victims have the possibility to obtain compensation, and it demands that States consider the age, gender and special needs of victims, as well as the special needs of children, including appropriate housing, education and care, when providing assistance and protection. Various United Nations organizations and other ICAT members specialize in different aspects of empowering trafficked people and supporting States in this regard.

The theme for this year's World Day against Trafficking in Persons (30 July 2021) is "Victims' Voices Lead the Way". Image credit: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

In the best case, these provisions lead to the creation of meaningful work and educational opportunities for survivors, and improved working conditions in various sectors, such as agriculture, construction, manufacturing and mining. Moreover, relevant organizations work to improve conditions and norms that negatively affect people, especially women and girls, and put them at a higher risk of abuse and exploitation. Some organizations ensure that trafficked men are also considered victims and are given access to relevant services.

The United Nations offers training to police and prosecutors to better recognize cases of trafficking, and to assist and protect victims of this crime. It seems obvious and natural that people who have been manipulated in criminal ways, and have been abused and exploited, should receive all the support and protection they are entitled to once their plight comes to light. Unfortunately, reality is not that simple. Victims may not conform to what may be expected from them in terms of emotion and behaviour. The experiences victims endure may make it difficult for them to provide a consistent account of what they went through. They may try to protect and defend their exploiter due to dependencies created and fears instilled; they may fear reprisals against themselves or their family when they open up to investigators or service providers; and they may not trust State authorities at all. It requires some effort and understanding to overcome assumptions, biases and mutual distrust, and United Nations organizations support such efforts.

United Nations bodies and organizations, including those working through ICAT, also promote the non-punishment of victims of trafficking. When people are trafficked, they may be forced to cross borders illegally, made to violate labour regulations as well as those governing prostitution, or even forced to commit crimes such as cultivating illegal drugs, etc. If States simply focus on such violations but fail to dig deeper, they are helping keep traffickers in business and shielding them from investigation and punishment.

In all efforts to prevent trafficking and tailor responses to the crime, the survivors of trafficking are key participants. The international community is just beginning to consider the experiences and insights of survivors in addressing trafficking-related issues. All too often the advocacy role of survivors in anti-trafficking efforts is limited to speaking at conferences about their ordeal. This carries the risk that survivors may be reduced to their story to satisfy some need for sensationalism. At the same time, many survivors who have become anti-trafficking activists have concrete ideas about how they can support global efforts. Some work with police to reach out to people who may be experiencing exploitation, and some alert peers to the risks of trafficking. Survivors should be consulted when developing national action plans or reviewing legislation. They can convey the experiences they had with traffickers and show that it pays to give them opportunities and a choice. 

It is high time that we take to heart the wisdom expressed in the theme of this year's World Day Against Trafficking in Persons and let “victims’ voices lead the way”.

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