Recently, I had a friend visit for a weekend and I just could not miss the opportunity to discuss the issue of human trafficking with her. Following a brief introduction to the problem and what it constitutes, the inevitable question came at me, “Why can’t they just leave?” Advocates of domestic violence and sexual abuse victims are painfully familiar with that question and have tirelessly worked for years to provide an answer that is concise and clear, but at the same time does not belittle or assault the questioner. Upon further conversations with my friend, it became evident that without a plausible explanation in response to her question, she, as many others unfortunately, was ready to conclude that there is just something about those people that sets them up for the kinds of situations in which they inevitably find themselves. In other words, it’s their fault.
Such a conclusion, though, is quite easy to make when one views the issue from a privileged position and without ever having to experience such an abuse. Even more difficult to understand is the concept of psychological coercion. With the occasional ghastly exceptions, the majority of trafficking victims are not chained or in any way physically restricted. This fact makes it harder for my friend, and others unfamiliar with the power of psychological influence, to figure out why despite the horrendous conditions, trafficking victims stay. What they don’t realize, however, is that their exact attitude is one of the main reasons it is not simply difficult to leave a trafficking situation, but also it is often impossible to return to somewhat of a normal life. When a community views a survivor as faulty and broken, the reintegration of that person would be painful and far from successful. Consequently, when the time comes to choose between a return to normal life or a return to a trafficker, many women often make the latter choice.
The bottom line is that leaving an abusive, destructive, dependent and violent relationship (whether it is a husband and wife or a trafficker and a victim) is extremely hard and requires a lot of strength and support. Until society grasps the validity of psychological coercion and its incredible impact on vulnerable populations, the element of protection when it comes to human trafficking will not be properly attended to.