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The cost of emotive language


Another anti-trafficking event; another tear-streaked verse of “We Shall Overcome”. Nothing divides a conference like the predictable videography of trafficked individuals set to music. The reaction is palpable, split between professionals working in the field (those who’ve begrudgingly attended) who avert their eyes out of embarrassment or jaded passivity and the newcomers, moved by visual imagery and heartbreaking accounts. Having attended scores of practitioner and advocate conferences on diverse and sensitive issues, including domestic violence, child abuse, sexual violence and gangs; never have we been subjected to such emotional appeals in a professional environment as in the field of human trafficking. This is not limited to Singapore, of course. At the Oslo Freedom Forum, Julia Ormond reportedly “ended an otherwise thoughtful talk on supply-chain slavery by singing ‘Amazing Grace’. With an echo effect.”

Rarely do those activists playing to an empathetic audience interrogate the use of narrowly constructed sensationalist messaging reiterated in “awareness raising” about human trafficking. This is perhaps compounded by an influx of action-oriented “expert” celebrities (and celebritized experts: Siddarth Kara, Nicholas Kristof) like Jada Pinkett Smith and Mira Sorvino, who during the BBC World Debate on Human Trafficking took “issue with the shape of the debate”, claiming Laura Agustin’s contributions about the state of trafficking were intended “to throw doubt, confusion and chaos into a discussion that should be about finding solutions rather than arguing”. The pros and cons to celebrity participation in trafficking are subject to another discussion, like this one. As the Interdisciplinary Project on Human Trafficking points out, a lack of accountability for celebrity “expertise” combined with reductive narratives dilute,

the public’s willingness to intellectually engage and earnestly attend to the issues and to the people who are suffering. Furthermore, it can detract from learning the solutions that those afflicted by human rights violations would propose for themselves. In shifting the focus away from engagement with those most impacted, celebrity human rights activism risks rendering those people “victims” as opposed to “actors,” and can shift realistic depictions of human rights issues away from the truly gruesome, complex, or boring, toward the more palatable, tangible, or exciting.

In other words, this perspective ignores the value in critical public discourse that challenges perceptions of trafficking and evaluates best practice, including purported victim-centered approaches, resulting in emotive appeals to motivate and effect change.

Academics have explored the intersections between emotions and activism (also, see forthcoming work by Sallie Yea regarding the mobility of symbolic devices, specific to Singapore). Current research includes examining the spaces, boundaries, politics, language, identity and emotional reflexivity utilized in individual and collective activism. However, more work is needed regarding the impact of activist/survivor interaction in the public sphere. Service providers should be held accountable and work collaboratively to establish standards for care, including activism that incorporates first-person narratives. Wholesale acceptance of activist rhetoric inhibits interrogation of potential ethical risks to victims of trafficking; public-awareness campaigns should strive to be better informed about their messaging as well as their potential impact on survivors.

Deeply concerning is the objectionable (but rarely contested) practice by some organizations of showcasing newly-acquired victims in public forums as a strategy to raise awareness. Public education in a variety of contexts can be part of a survivor empowerment strategy to facilitate healing, and lend a powerful voice to influence anti-trafficking initiatives. “Empowerment may be defined as having (or taking) control, having a say, being listened to, being recognized and respected as an individual and having the choices one makes respected by others (moving from victim to survivor).” Survivor empowerment may entail engaging with the public through the media or at events. However, organizations encouraging individuals to do so, but which lack proper support services, including risk assessment procedures, hazard unintended consequences:

Survivors who are still on their healing path […] are also vulnerable to being re-traumatized by public exposure. They are at risk of being identified by traffickers or other people who may stigmatize them and may experience psychological triggers from the process of being interviewed or the outcome of the final product. […] [I]f there are clear benefits to the client themselves, professionals working with survivors of sex trafficking, especially minors, have the responsibility to help determine their readiness to release their story publically, prepare them for the media experience and help them to maintain control of their own story.

Victims of human trafficking are subject to a range of psychosocial trauma during and after their trafficking experiences, including Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), dissociative disorders, anxiety and mood disorders, and complex trauma. Left unaddressed, victim recovery can become compromised, resulting in re-trauma or re-victimization. Individually tailored psychological support mechanisms are crucial in recovery. Even years after victims are able to leave their trafficking situation, mental health issues can appear or resurface. Moreover, the diversity of victims’ needs must be grounded in service provision equipped to understand and support those needs. The provision of high-quality care potentially results in outcomes that reach far beyond the individual:

It is generally accepted that the empowerment of victims in a holistic manner reduces secondary victimisation, encourages co-operation with the criminal justice process, reinforces socially desired behaviour, and acts as a deterrent to offenders or potential offenders. Victim empowerment thus has the potential to prevent and reduce crime and violence and to enhance the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.

In addition to developing established support structures that can accommodate a victim’s basic needs, including physical health, housing, legal issues and empowerment strategies, mental health issues need particular consideration. Psychological well-being is predicated on identity reconstruction, reintegration, skills development and/or self-esteem, establishing confidential communication and trust, and the incorporation of culturally sensitive care practices. The latter is particularly salient for various mental health issues, including acceptability of assistance by victims and perception of treatment. Additionally, minnors (including those who are now adults) require specialized attention by mental healthcare providers. Human trafficking is an emerging issue in the field of mental health. As a result, little empirical evidence exists regarding treatment, though good practice is being developed, such as the recently produced comprehensive IOM guidance on Caring for Trafficked Persons.

Alongside service delivery structures tailored to victims’ needs, institutional structures should be established to understand and take into account the well-being of NGO staff working with trafficked persons. Human trafficking organizations are increasingly accounting for or requiring self-care assessments for professionals. Compassion fatigue, burn out, and/or secondary or vicarious trauma are experienced by case managers, resulting in personal mental health issues, not to mention staff turnover.

The Singapore National Plan of Action Against Trafficking in Persons specifically outlines the imperative to create enhanced victim care services – including mental health service provision. This should be supported through both educational training initiatives for service providers broadly, as well as specialist practitioners. With limited capacity, NGOs lack adequately trained case managers and social workers with the expertise to handle trafficking-related trauma. Compounded by non-existent formalized case referral mechanism between government agencies and NGOs, and standardized procedures for care, it is no wonder we are moved to tears.



  1. […] for celebrity except of the lowest common denominator sort.  This excellent piece came out from The Trafficking Reasearch Project  today.  As they […]

  2. […] previously voiced our concerns about the use of emotive language and abolitionist rhetoric. Films in particular showcase and reinforce exemplary narratives to […]

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