Uncovering Assumptions in Survivor Assistance
Blog by Runa Lazzarino, Middlesex University / St Mary’s University
Edited for online publication by Katarina Schwarz
What are the most important needs of survivors in their post-trafficking life?
This is a question I regularly asked officers in government agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on assistance for survivors of human trafficking. The answers I received were often repetitive:
On its face, this answer seems fairly simple and unproblematic. The declared aim of anti-trafficking care is often to help survivors towards the reconstruction of this normal life. However, considered more carefully, this reveals a bias towards a particular vision of what ‘normal’ for survivors looks like, and in fact what a normal life looks like more generally. This answer makes recovery an end-goal rather than an ongoing process, focuses on the individual in isolation rather than in community, and prioritises freedom of choice as the measure of recovery (see this article for more nuanced discussion). Recovery is seen as a single line, moving from a victim identity to a normal life of freedom and autonomy. However, the realities of progress and recovery are far more complex, and survivors tend to paint a different picture of how they want their post-trafficking ‘normal’ life to be.
What are the current goals of anti-trafficking after-care?
Many anti-trafficking programmes offer one-size-fits-all packages of support, focused on the idea of re-empowering survivors. This approach is often rooted in the idea of trafficking victims as traumatised subjects, deprived of control over their own lives. Helping survivors reconstruct a normal life then becomes the goal of care. Normal, in this case, understood as the life of a productive citizen who can make free choices about the direction of their own life, and continue to strengthen their self-esteem (see this article for further details). Clearly, this is an unrealistic picture of freedom. What’s more, self-esteem is a Western-centred idea, which features in the leading model of international psychosocial intervention, but does not account for different cultural contexts. Unsurprisingly, this model is in turn consistent with the dominant discourse of victimhood and trauma.
The result of this standardised approach is that programmes often do not meet the specific needs of survivors in non-Western countries. Even if you assume survivors have similar needs and the goals of care should be the same everywhere, survivors in different cultural contexts will respond differently to the approaches taken to delivering assistance for recovery and (re)integration. Further, empowerment and self-esteem carry within themselves notions such as agency and subjectivity—they rely on responding to the needs and circumstances of survivors in context and based on their specific experiences, visions and beliefs about themselves, their life, and the world. These cannot be standardised—they rely on the individual’s life history, context, and culture. Overall, standardised approaches to care that are rooted in Western values are unlikely to be effective for survivors everywhere.
I conducted research on post-trafficking life in three drastically different contexts: Brazil, Nepal, and Vietnam.
Brazil, Nepal, and northern Vietnam have very diverse political, economic, and cultural landscapes. In these countries, the role of women, laws in place, and attitudes towards sex-work are also very different. In each country, I focused on one post-trafficking service provider. These providers offered a particular type of service and aimed to impact the reconstruction of the clients’ lives with different levels of intensity.
>>> In Brazil, I accompanied the work of a religious organisation which—jointly with the local governmental anti-trafficking network—supported the repatriation and reintegration of trafficked women.
>>> In Vietnam, I followed a group of young women, initially as residents of a medium-term shelter, and later as ex-residents in follow-up assistance.
>>> In Nepal, I investigated the practices of assistance of a radical faith-based organisation running a number of homes where underage returnees or minors at risk were raised and accompanied for years.
The mission of the Brazilian organisation was to liberate (sexually) exploited migrant women; the aim of the Vietnamese shelter was to reshape good, traditional female members of the society; and the Nepalese charity was working at crafting new souls in a new community.
What survivors have to say
The trafficking returnees I met were, for the most part, young women assisted in anti-trafficking programmes. When asking them about their needs, the answer I repeatedly heard revolved around the idea of family. They generally expressed either the desire to get married and have children and/or—when mothers already—the aspiration to find a good job to be able to give a better life to their family members. Many women I talked to also added that they wanted a normal life. Their idea of normality implied they were looking forward to leaving behind the status of assisted victim of trafficking and becoming ordinary people. But, their understanding of what normal looked like seemed significantly different to the current understandings of care programmes.
Amidst remarkable diversity in terms of culture and type of assistance I studied in my research, independence, empowerment, and self-esteem did not seem to be concepts near to the experience of the survivors I met. On the one hand, none of them expressed difficulties in terms of power and self-esteem. On the other hand, financial independence was generally not understood in terms of pure self-sustainability or individual success. The independence the young women I met were most worried about was independence from the aid assistance they were receiving and that was binding them to a victim identity.
Aid assistance can create the very problems it tries to solve, in particular making victims dependent beneficiaries. Because training offered to trafficking survivors is often gender-stereotyped—if not fully inappropriate—and removed from their local communities, they can remain emotionally and financially dependent on their service provider for a long time.
Survivors’ own answers demonstrated an understanding of wellbeing centred on kinship and social relations rather than the individual in isolation. In this understanding, the individual is embedded within their family and community and defines themselves through their relationships with others, rather than as a completely independent unit. In other words, for these survivors, being a fully connected part of their kinship and community network seemed more important than self-sufficiency or independence.
What does this mean?
If the goal of post-trafficking assistance is to enable survivors to live a normal life, we should pay attention to who defines what counts as normal. If normality in humanitarian care is based on the idea of an efficient individual, trafficking survivors may feel the pressure of familial and community bonds and obligations. In this, they can be caught in a struggle between two conflicting forces, making recovery more complicated. Of the survivors I studied, those who were trying to build new lives for themselves often struggled at the fringes of modernity, while others sought community connection over individual independence. In both cases, it seems that current programmes have misplaced their priorities, despite the best of intentions.
While this kind of opposition does not relate only to victims of human trafficking, the status of assisted victim in this context is unique. To enter normality, trafficking survivors have to leave behind the identity of victim. Retrospectively, we may wonder if, for some survivors, better reintegration away from the burdensome label of ‘victim’ and its implications, might have occurred if service providers attuned their projects to the lived experience of their beneficiaries and changed their understanding of what normal looks like in post-trafficking life.
Further reading on Vietnam and bride traffiking:
Further reading on Brazil and trafficking for sexual exploitation:
Further reading on Nepal and trafficking in women: