Human Trafficking

Human trafficking continues to capture the imagination of the global public. Gut wrenching narratives about girls kept as sexual slaves and sold into domestic servitude appear on front pages of newspapers, in academic journals, and books. Public discourse emphasizes the particular vulnerability of trafficked children, related to bio-physiological, social, behavioral, and cognitive phases of the maturation process and underscores the necessity to act in the children’s best interest. Trafficked children are always portrayed as hapless victims forced into the trafficking situation and hardly ever as actors with a great deal of volition participating in the decision to migrate.

I have been researching child trafficking for over a decade. First, I mainly studied up—decision-makers, policies, and programs set up to prevent child trafficking, protect trafficked children, and prosecute perpetrators—because access to trafficked children, guarded by their protectors almost as closely as by their traffickers, was impossible and research funds scarce. Most of the money appropriated by the US Congress for anti-trafficking activities was spent on direct services to victims or information campaigns. Later on as I gained trust of service providers, I was slowly able to meet a few survivors of child trafficking and was able to study down. In 2008, I received a grant from the National Institute for Justice (NIJ) and started interviewing trafficked children and their helpers in earnest. Since then I have interviewed and gathered information about over 140 children, most of them girls, trafficked to the United States for sexual and labor exploitation. They hail from far-flung corners of the world: Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Morocco, Cameroon, China, India, Pakistan, Albania, and Russia. Recently, I revisited some of these young women to assess their progress in recovering from the trauma of trafficking and their long-term prospects for integration into mainstream America. At the beginning of the study, most of the children were living in foster care, receiving psychological counseling, and many were not yet ready for independent living. Therefore, an assessment of their long-term prospects for attaining self-sufficiency was premature. Three years later, many are gaining increased independence, but some are still struggling with the aftermath of violence they experienced.

I have a book contract from Rutgers University Press to present this research. In this book I explore the coexistence of agency and vulnerability and the interplay of trauma and resiliency in child survivors of human trafficking. With an emphasis on agency and a move away from trafficked children as passive victims, this ethnography gives these children a voice and allows them to ascribe their own meaning to the trafficking experiences and provide a unique perspective on the social world about matters that concern them the most as they rebuild their lives in America. The ethnography juxtaposes the programmatic responses based on the principle of the “best interest of the child” with the young survivors’ perceptions of their experiences and service needs, and explores the tensions between the young people’s narratives of their experiences, grounded in local, culturally diverse conceptualizations of childhoods, and the actions and discourses of child welfare programs, based on Western middle-class ideals of childhood, proscribing standardized policy and programmatic responses towards trafficked children.

The book contributes to the unfolding discourse on human trafficking that takes a more agentic and harm reductionist approach found in the works of Laura Agustin (2007), Denise Brennan (2004, forthcoming 2013), Elizabeth Bernstein (2010), Julia O’Connell Davidson (2005, 2011), Pardis Mahdavi (2011), Svati Shah (2006), and Carole Vance (2011). The volume engages theoretical questions about children and childhoods, agency and vulnerability, and trauma and resilience. Programmatically, this ethnography aims to reconcile the gap between the survivors’ perceptions of their needs to recover from violence and exploitation (based on indigenous coping strategies, resiliency, and notions of agency and survivorship) and the institutional responses (based on notions of vulnerability, victimhood, and dependency on (based on notions of vulnerability, victimhood, and dependency on adults).

My interest in child trafficking is not limited to the United States. Under funding from the US Department of Labor, I have evaluated programs aimed at reducing child labor and preventing child trafficking in Cambodia and Nepal. This year (2013), I returned to Nepal to evaluate an anti-trafficking program placing young Nepali girls in schools. The evaluation was commissioned by a private foundation, Humanity United. I will blog about this project as I analyze the data; stay tuned for more in the Notes from the Field.

In January 2013, my colleague, Lindsay Lowell, and I started a new research project focusing on adult survivors of trafficking for labor and sexual exploitation to the U.S. We are currently in the midst of analyzing a longitudinal, relational database of 2200 adult survivors. Given the scarcity of empirical data on trafficking in persons, these data are unique; no other comparable sample of the same size exists in the United States. This presents an opportunity to establish a benchmark on the characteristics of these survivors, and reliably test the effect of interventions to address their well-being.

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