Global Communities and society, Welfare and equalities

Reintegrating victims of human trafficking – how do we change the narrative?


Photo by Hussain Badshah on Unsplash

More than 50 million people are trapped in modern slavery,  according to the most recent modern slavery estimates. Given the hidden nature of human trafficking, limitations to accessing worldwide data, and other influencing factors, a definite prediction of the number of victims is almost impossible, however, such estimates provide a basis to understand the most vulnerable areas and groups, and the most common forms of modern slavery.

The Palermo Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children is an internationally recognised definition of human trafficking. According to the Protocol’s definition, there are three elements that comprise human trafficking:

  • The act (what happened?) ‘Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons’;
  • The means (how it happened?) ‘Threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person’;
  • The purpose (the reason behind the act) ‘For the purpose of exploitation… Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs’.

The Covid-19 pandemic, armed conflicts, and climate change have impacted the labour market and access to education increased extreme poverty and forced unsafe migration leading to a higher risk for all forms of modern slavery.

The 2021 global estimates of modern slavery for forced labour and forced marriage show that there are 27.6 million people in situations of forced labour on any given day. This number translates to 3.5 people in forced labour for every 1000 people in the world. Women and girls make up 11.8 million of the total in forced labour, while more than 3.3 million of all those in forced labour are children.

When it comes to forced marriage, an estimated 22 million people were living in situations of forced marriage on any given day in 2021. This is a 6.6 million increase in the number of people living in a forced marriage between 2016 and 2021, which translates to a rise in prevalence from 2.1 to 2.8 per thousand people.

Why so many people are trapped in it?

While the global estimates of modern slavery are appalling, many might ask why is it still happening. Human trafficking is the highest profitable criminal activity for organised crime groups, after the illegal smuggling of drugs and weapons. Traffickers move to prevent cash from attracting suspicion. For example, they may move it abroad, or they might use it to buy other assets or try to introduce it into the legitimate economy through businesses that have a high cash turnover. Regardless of the hidden nature of this crime, understanding some of the tactics traffickers use to profit and invest illegal money can empower institutions and businesses to uncover traffickers.

Lack of access to quality education and decent jobs increases the risk of human trafficking and becomes a challenging factor during the reintegration process for survivors. Alongside the influence of corruption, poverty, and conflict, the ‘why human trafficking endures’ is categorised into push and pull factors. Push factors are associated with social, emotional, geographical, and political factors that might make individuals vulnerable towards trafficking. For example, a government with high corruption rates, or a country in conflict or war, can increase the vulnerability of underprivileged groups towards human trafficking.

In contrast, pull factors are seen as a source of potential opportunity for victims. Such factors might include false promises of high salaries, financial support when the targeted victim of trafficking is facing an economic crisis or the ‘lover boy method’, where victims are being deceived by their partners, who promise to them a happy family picture, but instead profit from their trust and exploit them.

Addressing the root cause of modern slavery and pushing governments to take concrete action towards ensuring strong social protection systems and direct responses to traffickers and exploiters remain crucial.

How can we change the narrative?

When it comes to tackling human trafficking, survivor-centred approaches are a prerequisite to effective responses. A big question remains what happens after rescue. Survivors might be faced with stigma, insults, abuse and hate speech in the community. Such experiences have direct consequences on the process of reintegration. For example, survivors might find being away from the community stressful, frustrating, and anxiety-provoking. Additionally, isolation might trigger revisiting past experiences for survivors of human trafficking.

Many programs and initiatives that aim for survivors’ empowerment remain underdeveloped and short-term, not because of a lack of willingness, but mostly because of limited funding and a lack of survivor-informed processes.

A more survivor-oriented approach has been piloted in Albania, named EmpowerFULL. “EmpowerFULL” (FuqiPLOTË in Albanian) is a socio-economic empowerment model which assists in the economic reintegration of survivors of human trafficking, through personal development sessions and access to sustainable employment opportunities.

The model is divided into three phases:

  1. The first phase includes personal & career development sessions focusing on overcoming limiting beliefs, visualisation and reframing the victim narrative.
  2. The second phase allocates personal development funds to survivors to pursue vocational training or make changes to their appearance and style, aiming to help in the process of accessing sustainable employment opportunities.
  3. The final phase involves the provision of employment opportunities and paid internships to break the invisible barriers of accessing unstable labour markets.

Through this model, the EmpowerFULL team aims to work together with survivors to identify and break any visible and invisible barriers in their personal development and economic empowerment process.

As a final note – Poem ‘Rebirth’ by Alex Elle:

There will be moments when

you will bloom

fully and then

wilt, only to be born again.

if we can learn anything from

flowers it is that resilience is born

even when we feel like we are dying.

Anxhela has founded “EmpowerFULL” a socio-economic model for the reintegration of survivors of human trafficking. She holds an MA in Global Crime and Justice from the University of York (UK) and an MSc in Administration and Social Services.


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