Economic Barriers Facing Survivors of Trafficking

Photo by Adam Szarmack

As they work to rebuild their lives, survivors of trafficking often face significant economic barriers, leading to higher rates of unemployment and potential revictimization. These barriers can affect survivors at any point in their journey, from immediately after they achieve freedom to many years down the line. Most survivors will need some form of financial assistance or help transitioning into a viable career. Coordinated legal, advocacy, and mutual aid efforts to address economic barriers can have a huge impact on survivors’ ability to recover and thrive.

This post describes several economic hurdles survivors of trafficking can face — and what you can do to help.

Educational challenges

Chronic and complex trauma wreaks havoc on a child’s mind, leading to conditions like PTSD, dissociative disorders, and others. These conditions can negatively affect a child’s education, especially if they experience amnesia due to their trauma or act out in class as a cry for help — resulting in lower grades that can greatly reduce their college and career prospects in adulthood.

Even as they pursue higher education, many survivors remain constantly on the run from their traffickers, needing to drop out of school to move cities or even states just to keep distance and protect themselves from the person or people who traumatized them. This unexplained leave of absence can be detrimental to transferring to another school, cost additional money in tuition, and leave the student without any option of returning to school.

As a survivor, I was revictimized during my third year of college and forced to leave school to prevent myself from being stalked by my trafficker’s accomplice. I’m not the only survivor with a story like this.

Similar situations can also happen when a survivor is settled into a career. If their trafficker reenters their life, they may need to quit their job and move just to keep themselves safe. This can be detrimental to long-term career goals.

Immigration issues

Some survivors who are adults may not have a working visa, preventing them from getting a job in the country they were trafficked into. There are government programs to provide visas, but little information and support about them is available to most survivors. These programs need to be expanded.

Criminal records

Survivors of sex trafficking can have criminal records because of the acts they were forced to commit while being trafficked. If a survivor had to work the streets, they may have been picked up by police and charged for solicitation, despite being a victim. Some survivors are forced to harm or even kill their trafficker to escape or protect themselves, and often the survivor is the one punished.

Trafficking survivors are sometimes considered an accessory to their trafficker’s crimes. Several famous cases, especially against BIPOC survivors, have occurred in which survivors have been charged with the crimes of their traffickers or for their acts of self-defense. This even happens to children who are being trafficked.

We should advocate for legislation that decriminalizes the selling of sex, so fewer survivors of trafficking end up with unfair charges against them. We can also donate to nonprofit organizations that help expunge the criminal records of trafficking survivors.

Disability

Being a disabled person myself, I’ve experienced firsthand the challenges of living with a disability while trying to make ends meet. Survivors of trafficking often have complex physical or psychiatric disabilities that make it harder for them to work traditional jobs.

To support trafficking survivors and all disabled people, we can push for policies that extend disability benefits. We can also advocate for disabled people to be paid at least minimum wage, since it is currently legal to pay some disabled people below minimum wage.

Debt from traffickers

Traffickers will sometimes create debt in their victim’s name, by using the victim’s credit cards or stealing their identity. This can leave a victim with thousands of dollars to pay back, despite not being responsible for the purchases. Traffickers can also use the debt as a form of coercion, leaving victims vulnerable to more abuse — for example, needing to sell themselves for sex — to pay off the debt.

Debt relief programs for trafficking survivors do exist, but they need to be expanded. It’s also important to make survivors aware that relief programs like this do exist.

Lack of opportunities and support

Trafficking survivors are often on their own, with little family support and few social connections. It can be intimidating to suddenly need to survive on your own after going through such intense trauma, often without the same educational and career opportunities as your peers.

Comprehensive support for survivors includes economic support in addition to more traditional services like housing and trauma recovery. It’s also important to have options available for survivors who have been free for years but are still struggling with financial issues.

Providing direct economic opportunity — such as by hiring survivors in your business or nonprofit organization, or by providing job training to survivors — is the most beneficial way to help. Fair pay and career pathways with growth opportunities are absolutely essential, especially if you can place survivors in leadership positions. Offering scholarships and educational opportunities to survivors is equally important. If you have the means, donating directly to survivors is another great form of support. Lastly, donating to a nonprofit organization that assists survivors is also helpful, especially if the organization is survivor led.

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