Eradicating slavery means a commitment to combating the underlying causes of exploitation, and recognizing that the road to true recovery for survivors is one that does not end with emergency aftercare.
Many shelters and organizations keep tabs on the survivors they have helped, but few carry on the level of social care and social work that many survivors need. Last week, the blog included a video post which introduced Kristina Misiniene of Lithuania. She is both a social worker and a psychologist, and she has worked with some survivors for years. There is a link that many people don’t like to admit, or think about, between poverty and trafficking. Desperate people take desperate measures, including desperate and unbelievable job offers in other countries. Sometimes, even men and women who have survived horrible conditions of forced labor or sex trafficking still call that recruiter’s phone number in the paper, or on the website.
The question really is this: how do we empower survivors to the level that they can achieve real, long-lasting success and live relatively normal lives? This is a need, and it is one that has been acknowledged by some. Pierre Tami, in Cambodia, focuses almost exclusively on social empowerment projects. He runs several restaurants, a catering business, and several other projects that are based in the ideas of social capital and social entrepreneurship. He employs trafficking survivors at these establishments. How did he first come to understand the need for social empowerment for survivors? He began working in anti-trafficking by opening a shelter for victim aftercare.
But the sad truth is that many survivors are re-trafficked. Many are still incredibly vulnerable to re-exploitation. People are often surprised by this. They don’t understand how someone who survived such an ordeal could make the kinds of decisions that take them back into situations where they are vulnerable to trafficking. That is because, while we love the cowboy sort of rescue, we struggle to understand the need for long term care and long term social and financial empowerment.
What Happens After the Rescue
For this blog, she will be called by a made-up name: Gabriele. Let this be clear: this blog does not tell the stories of those who are trafficked. This blog focuses on the modern abolitionists, and what is being done to fight human trafficking. Many anti-trafficking activists argue that telling the stories of survivors over and over again amounts to re-exploitation. This blog has no intention of being a place where people are re-exploited or made a spectacle of. The story of Gabriele is not the story of her trafficking, although it will be mentioned. We are telling the story of what happened after her rescue, and of the people, the abolitionists, who have tried to help her find some semblance of normal in her life.
Gabriele was trafficked to the UK for sexual exploitation. She was rescued. She was returned to Lithuania. The police brought her back to the UK to testify against her traffickers, and in return she was given a small sum of money. She returned to Lithuania and began working with Kristina Misiniene at Caritas Lithuania. She had one child when she returned. When we met Gabriele, it was an overcast day in Kaunas and the wind was biting cold. We came with Kristina, and our taxi stopped outside of an old soviet-style housing building. The front looked in disrepair, windows were closed with blinds, and several men sat on the stone stoop. They weren’t doing anything in particular, just sitting there. An eight-year-old girl pushed a stroller past us.
We walked in and the complex was dark and musty. There were no lights in the hallways and no lights near the elevator shaft. The décor was bleak, just the natural stone color and some faded yellow laminate on the walls. We boarded the elevator, which swayed and creaked as we walked on, and went to the floor on which Gabriele lives. Kristina called her as we waited by the window at the end of a dark hallway, and then motioned for us to follow. Gabriele met us at a door, and through the door we climbed a stairwell, and then turned into her apartment. Since it was an old soviet style apartment, they shared the kitchen with one other family, and their apartment was confined to one room, a small hallway, and a bathroom.
She lives there now with her four children and her boyfriend. The main room is half-covered in black mold, which creates a pungent smell throughout the apartment. Her littlest child, not more than a couple years old, is allergic to the black mold and has a rash all over his body that will not go away. She bought this apartment with the small sum of money that she was given by the police in the UK. She bought it from the government. Shortly after she moved in, a water main broke and her apartment was flooded. That was when the black mold started. She can’t sell the apartment, and can’t pay the taxes. Her boyfriend drinks and is rarely at home. She has never had a job in her life, but is trying to find one. There is no legal recourse, and even if she were to get a settlement, she owes so much in back taxes on the apartment that it could still be taken from her.
Just out the window we could see all of Kaunas stretched out before us, and a host of similar soviet-style apartment buildings on the horizon.
What to do now?
Gabriele lives in a tiny apartment with her children. She has no money, no job, and the only place she has to live is covered in black mold which is hurting her baby. But what else can she do? Where else can she go? She is a survivor of human trafficking. How well has she survived? Our governments, our NGOs, our IGOs, and our civil society need to learn that helping people heal from trafficking may mean working with them for decades. More than that, it may mean taking into account a prominent factor in re-exploitation: poverty. Gabriele was lured to the UK with the promises of a job. She went because she needed one. She still needs one. She is still vulnerable to exploitation.
As Philip Hyldgaard in Greece is quick to point out, many survivors are re-trafficked. In order to eradicate slavery, our societies must invest in long term trauma care, and social empowerment, for the survivors of human trafficking. Many survivors needed to be rescued, and they needed emergency care. But helping a survivor heal from their trafficking does not end once they leave their emergency shelter. Their journey to a healthy and normal life is just beginning. Actually caring for this group of people means coming alongside them and beginning to combat the underlying issues in their own lives, in our societies, in our laws, and in our own hearts. If we want to eradicate slavery in our lifetime, we have to be concerned not only with rescue, prosecution, and aftercare, but what happens after aftercare.