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Enlist Survivors in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

Victims of human trafficking possess insights and intelligence that could prove to be game changers in counter-trafficking operations. Empowering willing and rehabilitated survivors to pursue meaningful engagement with law enforcement would almost certainly help to increase conviction rates.

KAMPALA – Human trafficking is on the rise, and a new report from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime reveals that perpetrators face “hardly any risk” of punishment. As long as impunity is the rule, the problem will continue to grow, and more people will continue to suffer at traffickers’ hands.

To be sure, most countries now have anti-trafficking laws, some with very stringent penalties. In my home country of Uganda, for example, the 2009 Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act mandates a death sentence for aggravated trafficking in children. Globally, there are 117 signatories and 173 parties to the UN Palermo Protocol on trafficking.

But, worldwide, 21 million people remain trapped in slavery, and millions of them are victims of human trafficking for labor and sexual exploitation. But, as the UN report emphasizes, the number of convictions for human trafficking remains very low.

Change could come partly from a largely untapped source: survivors. Through my work with human-trafficking victims – including at the rehabilitation center that I founded – I have seen firsthand the great potential survivors have to help in the fight against human trafficking. That is why survivors should not just be supported with services; they should also be empowered to be part of the solution.

There are already attempts to do just that. In India, a “school for justice” – a partnership between Free A Girl Movement and a top Indian law school – was founded in 2017 to train human-trafficking survivors to become lawyers. More lawyers specialized in sexual-exploitation cases, it is hoped, will help increase conviction rates.

In the United States, the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons has established an advisory council on human trafficking, which serves as a formal platform for survivors’ participation in policy discussions. While its impact has yet to become fully apparent, giving a voice to survivors in shaping policy already amounts to an important step forward.

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But there are other, overlooked areas where survivors can contribute. Notably, they could cooperate with law enforcement to help dismantle trafficking networks. After all, survivors know firsthand how people are recruited, coerced, manipulated, and exploited. They understand not only the physical and psychological tactics that traffickers use, but also how victims respond to these tactics.

A Ugandan survivor of nearly two years of sexual exploitation in the Middle East once described how traffickers would deliberately interact with the police in front of their captives, creating the impression that the police could not be trusted to protect victims, thereby discouraging reporting. Such insights could be integral to effective counter-trafficking operations and interventions.

To leverage the knowledge and capabilities of survivors in the fight against human trafficking, law-enforcement officers would need to train survivors in areas ranging from the law to investigative techniques. Such efforts would not only enable survivors to help dismantle human-trafficking networks, but would also give them transferable job skills.

At the same time, law-enforcement officers would have to learn from survivors, working with them to gain valuable insights into the functioning of trafficking networks. In fact, survivors should be supported in conducting – as paid facilitators or trainers – training programs for law enforcement.

Programs that deepen the relationship between survivors and law enforcement would go a long way toward dispelling the narrative of fear perpetuated by traffickers, who are understandably eager to keep the two groups apart. The mutual trust this engendered could strengthen survivors’ cooperation in investigations and prosecution of traffickers, further contributing to an increase in conviction rates.

To reinforce this connection further, law enforcement officials should become involved in survivor rehabilitation programs. This would also foster improved relations between law enforcement and NGOs and could even lead to shared responsibility for rehabilitation, which currently is often left to the NGO sector.

Of course, the specific programs in which a government invests should fit that particular country’s needs, identified on the basis of improved data. Even more important, survivors must be protected during this process, to avoid re-traumatization. This means making sure that they give their consent, and have been rehabilitated, before being put on the frontline of the fight against human trafficking.

Willing and rehabilitated survivors, however, should be empowered to pursue meaningful engagement with law enforcement. They have insights and intelligence that could prove to be game changers in counter-trafficking operations. And nobody is more passionate about dismantling human-trafficking networks than those who have been victimized by them.

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