You may have seen Hope for Justice’s Christmas campaign video ‘Give Them Hope’. It focuses on Emer, a young woman forced into sexual exploitation by her trafficker, alienated from her loved ones. Rather than having a festive dinner with her friends and family, she finds herself under the control of another person. It is a situation which entirely dismisses her freedom and her dignity. Tragically, it is one which we see far too often.
When hearing the words slavery and human trafficking, we may be tempted to think of images of chains and locked doors. Yet, stories such as Emer’s demonstrate that the external signs and visuals of human trafficking and slavery can be more subtle than we think. Entrapment and coercion can come from less stereotypically spectacular sources. Indeed, the frontline staff at Hope for Justice regularly work on trafficking and slavery cases just like the fictionalised presentation in our film.
Gaining the victim’s trust
One method in trafficking that we see in the film – used in particular for trafficking young girls and women – is the use of what is sometimes referred to as the “lover boy” method. This method begins by the trafficker winning the trust and affections of the ‘girlfriend’. This could be through showering them with gifts or expensive experiences, usually ones which will target the ‘girlfriend’s’ vulnerabilities: their appearance, their loneliness, their sense of self-worth, amongst other aspects.
This is part of a gradual process by which the exploiter establishes control and power over the “girlfriend”. The gifts and expressions of affection later dry up and the dynamic becomes more explicitly exploitative. These initial offerings and the trust established are used to blackmail and coerce the girlfriend into sexual servitude. This can also result in the victim being ‘sold on’ to other perpetrators and exploiters. The seemingly affectionate touch from Emer’s captor at the end of the video is a token of this method. It is a sign of the initial trust and affection established to control and coerce her into a cycle of exploitation.
Methods of control
The frequently asked question posed in relation to cases like Emer’s goes something like this:
“Why don’t they just leave? There is nothing physically stopping them leaving.”
This question underestimates the extent of control wielded by a trafficker and the methods used to establish and maintain it.
Examples of measures used by traffickers are numerous and sophisticated. Many can restrict a person in fundamental and instrumental ways, acting as figurative chains in lieu of physical ones. For example, victims of trafficking can have their passports and documents seized, restricting their movement. Traffickers also force a victim to open a bank account to then take control of it and restrict the victim’s access. This gives them total financial dominance over the individual. In the case of a victim trafficked by their “lover boy” captor, the trafficker can also claim that the victim is now in their debt from the gifts they offered. This results in forced labour to pay back the debt. Debt repayment is a common trend outside of the “lover boy” method, where traffickers will subject their victims to debt bondage, making it near impossible for them to pay it off in full.
Traffickers also make use of measures which physically exploit and restrict their victims. Traffickers use violence on victims, creating a debilitating culture of fear. This can be combined with threats of violence on both the victim and their family were they to ask for help. This creates fear not only for the victims themselves but also their family. Traffickers also fuel addictive habits, such as drugs and alcohol, restricting the victim’s broader access to the substance to solely the trafficker.
Traffickers also gain coercive power from their victims by forcing them to commit crime. In so doing, they dangle the threat of being reported to the police if they do not do what the trafficker demands.
All this and more creates a situation which can feel impossible for the person being trafficked to break out of. This mix of coercion, threat, and dependence is a powerful tool used by traffickers.
What is important to note is that traffickers target people who present as vulnerable. The way their vulnerability presents itself often determines the way traffickers exert control. An example can best outline how this works:
Hope for Justice staff worked with a young girl of 18. She had very few friends and was broadly unhappy. She was approached by a group of girls from her school who treated her with kindness. They later introduced her to a group of older men, who they claimed were their friends. One of the men also showed her kindness, complimenting her and building up a trusting and amorous relationship. This was coupled with gifts: alcohol and food.
It was not long before the relationship turned exploitative. The girl was threatened with violence and told she needed to repay the debt amassed from her gifts. She was forced to a nearby address and left with two other men where she was sexually exploited. After being found by a member of the community, a report was filed with the local services. Hope for Justice later took on her case and supported her through her survival process.
This example case shows the insidious way traffickers can target and exploit existing vulnerabilities. In targeting a lonely individual, traffickers have a direct point of insecurity of which to take advantage. There is also a reduced risk of intervention if the target does not have a solid or present support network. Traffickers will adapt their measures to best exploit a specific individual.
Give them hope
There will be many like Emer who will spend this festive captive. This does not need to be the case. Hope for Justice works across 7 countries to intervene with cases like Emer’s. We combine this work with survivor rehabilitation, lobbying for policy change, and education on the signs and prevalence of modern slavery and trafficking. This approach is vital in our fight against slavery and achieving our goal of ending this avoidable, devastating phenomenon.
You can help us in this fight. By donating to our Christmas Campaign, your money will go directly towards efforts supporting the many people like Emer: people who are left without hope. Give them hope. Donate here.