A couple years ago in Budapest, I met with Balint Dora from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Hungary office. By this point, Jay and I had already been to several Western European countries and had learned that Hungarian men, women, and girls represented a significant portion of trafficking victims across the continent. Poverty was a huge push factor, especially in the Northeastern part of Hungary, and traffickers had developed a system to exploit this vulnerability with great efficiency.
As we discussed these patterns with Dora, he mentioned something I’d never considered before:
While some of the trafficking survivors we’ve met have been able to identify a specific point in time when they were trafficked (as would be the case in kidnapping situations, for example), for many others the timeline was not so defined. For example, one of the women we met in the U.S. was sexually abused as a child, raped as a teenager, fell in love with a man who became her pimp, and then started stripping and giving him her money. Exploitation, for her, was a way of life from the time she was a child, so being pimped out was not so different from what she had already come to see as normal.
For others, sex trafficking is just one experience within the cage of systemic poverty. Perhaps they came from a family in debt bondage, and as a result had to work in a brick factory or a mine to help pay off the family debt. While doing so, they may have been sexually abused, or sold to a trafficker who brought them to their next destination of exploitation – a brothel. Eventually they may have been able to leave the brothel and work for themselves in the sex industry, feeling relatively empowered despite having post traumatic stress disorder and the inability to do anything else.
In these situations, it’s hard to pinpoint when the exploitation started or ended. And that makes seeking help even more complex. If a person thinks exploitation is a normal way of life, how do they know to reach out? If someone asks them how long they were trafficked, would they understand the question? If an individual has never tasted freedom, do they know it exists?
The complexity of people’s realities is precisely the reason why the fight against human trafficking cannot be successful if our sole focus is human trafficking itself. We must address belief systems, cultural values, economic structures and political capacity. These are often the building blocks of systemic injustice, but we have the opportunity to turn them into cornerstones of hope.