How Can Victims of Human Trafficking be Identified?

By Dialogo
July 30, 2013

Identifying a victim of human trafficking allows these victims to be more than simply a complainant in a prosecution.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, when adequate anti-trafficking laws are enforced, identification of a person as a victim must begin with a process that respects their rights, provides them protection, and enables them to access services to recover from the trauma inflicted by traffickers. On the other hand, when authorities misclassify or fail to identify victims the victims not only lose access to justice, but may be misidentified as undocumented immigrants or criminals deserving punishment, and even unfairly subjected to additional harm, trauma, and punishments, including arrest, detention, deportation, or prosecution.

When these failures occur, they reinforce what traffickers around the world commonly threaten their victims with: law enforcement will incarcerate or deport them if they seek help.

This backward outcome is why governments are doing well in committing to modern comprehensive anti-trafficking laws or international standards for victim care. Government must guarantee victims their rights and protection, but passing laws is only a first step for governments that take victim identification seriously. The success of victim identification will often depend on who that trafficking victim first encounters—whether a police officer, immigration agent, or labor inspector.

These may including government officials who inspect or have access to establishments where trafficking may occur; private sector employees in establishments employing potential traffic victims, such as hotels, restaurants, bars, beauty parlors, and grocery stores; law enforcement officers who are on the front lines of crime and are often those who have primary contact with trafficking victims, including all police, immigration officers, and border guards; health care professionals who often see trafficking victims; transportation professionals who often encounter trafficking victims either being transported or otherwise exploited—truck, taxi, and bus drivers; train attendants; flight attendants; and employees at truck and rest stops, and education officials who are uniquely positioned to identify children who are being exploited—principals, guidance counselors, teachers, and school nurses.

Unfortunately, the report also shows that government officials do not yet have the training they need to proactively identify victims, and as a result, wait in vain for victims to self-identify. Case after case has emerged in which government officials come in contact with a trafficking victim and fail to recognize the characteristics of the crime. Officials often fail to recognize male victims of forced labor, for example, even when these describe the severe exploitation they endured, because the officials assume that trafficking only happens to women.

Labor inspectors or immigration officers sometimes are confronted with indicators of human trafficking but fail to recognize the indicators as such or don’t see trafficking as falling under their authority. Maritime officials focus on whether the condition of a fishing vessel and its equipment complies with environmental or safety regulations and miss the gross abuses inflicted on the crew. Vice squads and judges may see people in commercial sex as irredeemable and fail to look beneath the surface or acknowledge their suffering. To prevent such lapses, government efforts to identify victims must go well beyond laws guaranteeing certain mechanisms, rights, or status.

Governments need to seek to implement proactive systematic identification strategies designed to fit the wide range of settings and circumstances in which victims have been or might be found. Formal anti-trafficking training is essential to ensure that law enforcement, prosecutors, the judiciary, first responders, and other government officials have a common understanding of the elements of trafficking crimes, the evidence necessary for a conviction, and factors for special consideration such as trauma and dependency. Protocols and training curricula should align with this shared understanding. Training efforts should be based on policies and procedures that provide trainees with clear guidance for action: what to do when encountering an individual who may be the victim of human trafficking or a situation characterized by indicators of trafficking.

It is also essential that agencies collaborate with overlapping areas of responsibility and with social services agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and international organizations (IOs) that provide assistance to victims. Sound policies on victim identification must include planning for access to comprehensive services.