“When I Started to Look Deeper” is a series of personal stories by Saskatchewan people. Each author shares a moment that inspired them to look beyond the symptoms of global issues – such as hunger, health, education, and conflict – in order to find the root causes and work for more sustainable solutions. This series is a companion to SCIC’s LookDeeper online resource and campaign.
I Saw that Building More Shelters Won't End Human Trafficking
by Katie Bergman
I was standing in front of a roomful of potential donors, nervously waiting for someone to ask the first question.
After delivering an hour-long presentation on the community development program I managed in Southeast Asia, I’d hoped for eager approval of how my team was addressing the root causes of human trafficking. But the facial expressions of the twenty businesspeople sitting in front of me told me that nobody seemed particularly convinced.
Finally, one woman politely raised her hand and remarked, “This was an interesting presentation. But I think our group is more interested in opening a shelter or funding rescue operations. Is there any way you could arrange for us to visit a few brothels instead?”
"My heart sunk. As the rest of the room enthusiastically nodded in agreement, I felt bitterly disappointed—but not surprised."
My heart sunk. As the rest of the room enthusiastically nodded in agreement, I felt bitterly disappointed—but not surprised. I knew that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like ours, engaged in the unglamorous but critical work of human trafficking prevention, were not usually at the top of the list for donors to fund.
The media’s portrayal of human trafficking didn’t help our case. While I was grateful for the increasing public awareness, I resented how the media’s perspective created a skewed narrative, often capturing only the worst and most extreme cases of exploitation. And whenever an issue is sensationalized, usually the solutions are sensationalized, too—which is how I ended up with a group of twenty influential donors trying to convince me that my NGO needed to completely pivot to busting down brothel doors and building shelters.
But could I blame this group for being more attracted to rescue work than preventing people from being trafficked in the first place? Not really—especially since I’d shared the same mentality not long before, too.
A symptom of a deeper problem
I vividly remember the first book I ever read about human trafficking ten years ago.
As a second-year Human Justice student at the University of Regina at the time, I was immersed in research for a paper on a human rights issue of my choosing. The first book I’d read on the topic shocked me with terrifying stories of women being kidnapped from street corners to be forced into sexual exploitation. Most other resources reinforced the image of the helpless female sex slave who had been victimized at random by a problem that could only be solved with paternalistic programs and more law enforcement.
"...could I blame this group for being more attracted to rescue work than preventing people from being trafficked in the first place? Not really—especially since I’d shared the same mentality not long before, too."
When I entered the anti-trafficking industry at twenty-two years old, my only exposure to the issue was this fear-based portrayal of a highly complex, multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise. Still lacking a nuanced understanding of the issue, I moved to rural Cambodia to work as a research intern for an anti-trafficking NGO. Little did I know that my lens was about to completely change.
Within my first week on the job, I was startled to discover that in the area where we were working, men were almost twice as likely to be trafficked as women. That was because poverty and a lack of viable employment options drove them to illegally migrate to neighbouring countries looking for work to support their families, sometimes falling into the hands of unscrupulous “employers” who coerced them into unpaid labour. The complacent government gave room for traffickers to exploit these men, creating a revolving door of victimization.
"Within my first week on the job, I was startled to discover that in the area where we were working, men were almost twice as likely to be trafficked as women."
This wasn’t the version of human trafficking I’d read about in university or heard in the news. Clearly, building more shelters, hiring more police officers, or conducting more sting operations wouldn’t solve the problem on its own—so what would?
Originally, I believed the solution was relatively straightforward: improve access to education, create dignified income-generating opportunities, and demand better legal protection and social supports for people most at risk. But as I transitioned into more globally-focused work with another NGO, I began hearing directly from survivors themselves, and it became clear to me that focusing only on the economic and political aspects was incomplete.
As I listened to stories shared by survivors from Atlanta to Amsterdam to Amman, I detected a common thread in each story: a devastating lack of positive social support networks. Many of the survivors spoke about distressing home lives, how they grew up in a dysfunctional environment rife with addictions, neglect, and violence. In most cases, the survivors I met first experienced trauma and abuse long before they were recruited and exploited.
"Originally, I believed the solution was relatively straightforward: improve access to education, create dignified income-generating opportunities, and demand better legal protection and social supports for people most at risk."
I started seeing how the lack of safe, stable, nurturing relationships creates the conditions for exploitation to thrive. I learned that between 60-90% of commercially sexually exploited youth in the U.S. had spent time in foster care at some point, with similar proportions estimated in Canada. I learned about how gangs and trafficking rings often overlap. I also learned that the vast majority of traffickers experienced early childhood trauma or abuse themselves. All this reinforced for me the need to emphasize prevention, improve social supports, and improve access to mental health services.
But human trafficking is even more than a problem of abuse, trauma, and neglect in the home. It’s also influenced by social inequalities, too.
I learned that Indigenous people in Canada are disproportionately affected by human trafficking, and that this pattern repeats itself in other countries—making trafficking a racial issue. I learned that the vulnerability faced by homeless youth creates a susceptibility to exploitation—making trafficking a socioeconomic issue. I learned that many youth who are homeless do not identify as heterosexual or cisgender—making trafficking an LGBTQ+ rights issue. I learned that traffickers predominately target women and girls … but that when men and boys experience victimization, they are unlikely to find services to help them—making trafficking a gender inequality issue.
"I started seeing how the lack of safe, stable, nurturing relationships creates the conditions for exploitation to thrive. I learned that between 60-90% of commercially sexually exploited youth in the U.S. had spent time in foster care at some point, with similar proportions estimated in Canada."
I learned that our demand for cheaply made goods—especially coffee, chocolate, clothes, and electronics—has created a market for child and forced labour—making trafficking a consumption issue. I learned that natural disasters and other consequences of climate change can destroy livelihoods and leave people vulnerable to abuse—making trafficking an environmental issue, too.
Slowly, human trafficking started looking more like a symptom of a much bigger problem.
Undoubtedly, human trafficking is an economic and political issue. It can emerge when access to education, health care, and livelihood opportunities are limited; when governments aren’t accountable to their people; when the rule of law isn’t upheld. But it goes deeper than that.
Human trafficking also stems from broken relationships and fragmented communities. It is often the result of intolerance and abuse perpetuated by racism, gender inequality, xenophobia, ableism, and homophobia. So while we need to look at the bigger picture to address the structural and systemic issues, we need to simultaneously hone in on our personal biases, intolerant behaviours, and lifestyle choices.
"...while we need to look at the bigger picture to address the structural and systemic issues, we need to simultaneously hone in on our personal biases, intolerant behaviours, and lifestyle choices."
And that starts with us.
It starts with caring for our neighbours—and not just the ones who look like us. It starts with creating safe, positive spaces for our youth, especially youth in vulnerable situations. It starts with engaging meaningfully in racial reconciliation, in supporting refugees, in welcoming ethnic minorities and immigrants into our homes, schools, workplaces, and communities. It starts with building better support for people facing homelessness or chronic unemployment. It starts with unlearning the harmful beliefs that people of certain races, genders, religious beliefs, abilities, and sexual orientations have more value than others.
"It starts with caring for our neighbours—and not just the ones who look like us."
Our world is broken—so broken that exploiting human beings is one of the fastest-growing, most profitable criminal enterprises in the world. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we don’t have to leave all the work to external sources: to NGOs, to government programs, or even to well-meaning justice workers who are convinced they need to move overseas to make an impact. Intervening in human trafficking is something we all can do. And it starts by being the compassionate, inclusive neighbours that our communities need us to be.
Katie Bergman currently serves as a volunteer board member with SCIC. She is the Director of Communications and Operations for the Set Free Movement, an international non-profit organization intervening in human trafficking. After experiencing burnout and disillusionment on the international development field, she wrote When Justice Just Is.
Find out more: www.WhenJusticeJustIs.com.
Guest blogs are personal stories from people in our community. The views and opinions expressed in guest blogs are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of SCIC or its members.
Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac