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Creating accountability and protecting human rights in anti-trafficking efforts

We are pleased to welcome a fascinating post by Melissa Ditmore and Juhu Thukral on accountability and rights protection, with particular reference to anti-trafficking raids in United States.

Melissa Ditmore is a research consultant who has focused on trafficking, alongside health issues, violence, HIV and sex work. This post is based on a report from the Sex Workers Project (SWP) at the Urban Justice Center. Ditmore’s most recent book is Prostitution and Sex Work, a history of prostitution in the United States. She has published numerous books, book chapters, scholarly papers, and NGO-commissioned reports.

Juhu Thukral is a leading expert on the rights of low-income and immigrant women in the areas of sexual health and rights, gender-based violence, economic security, and criminal justice. She is a founder of numerous ventures supporting women and LGBT people, and has been recognized as one of “21 Leaders for the 21st Century 2012.” Thukral is the Director of Law and Advocacy at The Opportunity Agenda, where she leads strategic communications and policy initiatives on economic, immigrant, and gender and sexuality concerns. Prior to this, she was the founder and Director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City, where she continues to act as a Senior Advisor.

Trafficking in persons continues to be a serious human rights violation that affects workers all over the world. Trafficking in persons clearly involves human rights concerns, based on the coercion, threats, or violence that victims and survivors face. But the responses to human trafficking also involve very important human rights issues—a response to trafficking in persons that is rooted in human rights, respects the dignity and self-determination of the person who is thought to be a victim. This means creating an environment where the person at risk is able to make his or her own decisions about the steps he or she wants to take in addressing the situation. It also means doing the due diligence to investigate whether a situation involves coercion and trafficking, or not. This is one reason many anti-trafficking advocates oppose the use of raids as a way to stop trafficking, since those assessments can rarely be made in the setting of a raid.

Raids are often large-scale police operations that sweep up everyone present for arrest, interrogation, and detention. They tend to be chaotic because it is difficult to anticipate every potential action or turn of events that can take place during the raid. This means there is a fair amount of potential danger both to law enforcement and to the people are targets of the raid. Safety and securing all the targets has to be a priority, so agents can rarely focus immediately on figuring out who may be in a work setting under coercion or threats, and who is present of their own volition. And once a person who may or may not be trafficked is arrested or detained by law enforcement, it is difficult for agents to build trust with someone who may be a victim. People who have been picked up in a raid are also likely to be afraid the raid is their fault and to undergo more threats from potential traffickers who are angry a raid has taken place. As we wrote in our paper in the inaugural issue of Anti-Trafficking Review

In addition to law enforcement raids, numerous well-meaning “Good Samaritans” engage in anti-trafficking raids, either in cooperation with law enforcement or on their own. Such efforts are just as dangerous for trafficked persons. Private actors and organizations meaning to help often do not have the experience or expertise to identify whether people have actually been trafficked, and they rarely have the capacity or expertise required to offer high-quality legal and social services to those who have been trafficked or who were caught in a raid.

In the United States, where there has been increased interest and concern about trafficking over the last decade, the government has largely relied on a law enforcement approach to trafficking. However, in practice, no matter how much law enforcement aims to engage in what they call a “victim-centered” approach, methods focused on the criminal justice system inherently prioritize prosecution needs over the needs of crime victims. The United States has relied upon police and immigration raids in which crime victims are often arrested, sometimes alongside people who have victimized them. These raids have focused on trafficking into sex work and neglected trafficking in other labor sectors.

In our paper we described this as a lack of accountability to people who have experienced trafficking or who have been thought to be victims. This paper relied on data from interviews with 15 women who experienced law enforcement operations relating to trafficking in persons or sex work, 26 legal and social service providers, and five law enforcement personnel. This research made clear that some women experience law enforcement operations, and even endure multiple police raids and arrests, but they are not identified as trafficked by local police after these arrests. Sex workers interviewed reported being arrested by local police up to ten times before someone outside the local police department recognized that their situations met the definition of trafficking. Considering this and the emphasis on training law enforcement officers, it is clear that training about trafficking is not enough to overcome years of training to see sex workers as criminals to arrest and punish rather than people who may be victims of crime.

It may be counter-intuitive, but experience and data show that “rescue” missions do more harm than good. They are an emotional “quick-fix” attempt to deal with a complex and troubling problem, but seeing how few people are identified in the aftermath of a police raid despite training, it is clear that local raids and especially vice raids are ineffective at best with regard to tackling trafficking in persons. And trafficked persons arrested in raids are less likely to view police as their advocates. A lasting solution involves a tailored approach that is driven by a trafficked person’s specific needs, using tools such as qualified and appropriate services, addressing prevention and labor rights concerns, and having law enforcement engage in in-depth investigations rather than raids.

We previously noted

Alternate methods of locating and identifying trafficked people in isolated workplaces such as private homes could include increasing and closely monitoring labor protections for domestic workers, increasing awareness of protections available to undocumented trafficked persons, and empowering immigrant communities to identify and intervene appropriately in trafficking situations…Where trafficking is suspected, in-depth investigations may offer better results, especially for the arrest of people who commit violent crimes rather than victims of crimes. This may be most difficult with people in isolated conditions, such as in domestic labor, but it would also afford the greatest trust and cooperation.

There is great concern about the human rights violations surrounding trafficking in persons. As anti-trafficking advocates, it is our responsibility to ensure that we all respect the rights of victims and survivors as we try to help them. Specifically, we urge including human rights norms such as accountability, self-determination, and the right to decent work, into specific anti-trafficking laws and policies. We need to work at preventing human trafficking before it starts. This means addressing the factors that drive people into vulnerable situations, and educating them about the dangers they may face as they search for work and about their rights. Solutions may include enforcing and improving labor laws, creating safe and efficient channels for immigration, educating people about their rights in the United States, and allowing people to seek help from law enforcement when they are ready and able to do so. To this end, we conclude with a paragraph from our paper in Anti-Trafficking Review:

Accountability can also be improved by ensuring that the government provides unconditional access to services and assistance to trafficked persons, rescinding the present requirement that trafficked persons be willing to cooperate with law enforcement. Allocating funds to organisations involved in empowering immigrant communities and workers in informal economies would help protect these vulnerable groups and support their efforts to seek redress for coercion. More vigorous enforcement of labour laws (which largely apply to everyone in the United States, including undocumented migrants and trafficked persons) is recommended to combat debt bondage and other violations.

1 Comment

  1. […] at contract abuse and contract substitution, while Melissa Ditmore and Juhu Thukral focused on accountability and the protection of rights with reference to anti-trafficking raids.  We also received posts from Stephen Bell, who provided […]

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