What it Really Means to be Against Human Trafficking

Written by Abriel Schieffelers

When I tell people what I do, I usually try to leave out the words “human trafficking.” It’s a phrase that’s gained quite a bit of traction in recent years, and brings with it images of Liam Neeson gunning his way around Europe in an attempt to bring his daughter home from the traffickers who snatched her off the streets of Paris. 

The popular imagination sees human trafficking as a result of evil men holding guns who force their (usually female) victims into submission through force and drugs. And they see people who work with victims of human trafficking as rescuers, who bust into brothels to carry away the innocent victims and arrest the pimps. Just like so many things in life, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Human trafficking is a result of global inequalities that have set vulnerable people within the easy grasp of exploitation carried out by those who often have experienced those same inequalities. The unseen oppressors are governments that continue to exploit under-developed countries. The people who buy items made through the modern equivalent of slave labor. The man down the street who buys sex from the Asian massage parlor.  

When we engage with issues of human trafficking we often do so in a way that negates the complexity of the issue. We prefer to have clean cut narratives involving a loss of innocence, rescue, and restoration. We can’t imagine a child trafficked for sex returning to their old brothel. We barely notice the thousands and millions of people in bonded slavery, creating goods and resources they are unable to profit from. We ignore the stories of women who have chosen sex work and ask for the government to protect them instead of arresting them. There is complexity because there is humanity. 

And at the root of these myths and misunderstandings is this truth: human trafficking is a symptom of greater issues. Unless these expansive issues are dealt with at a systemic level, it will continue to operate out of necessity. What are some of these underlying causes? Gender inequality, economic inequality, consumer culture, rape and pornography culture, and the list goes on and on. To educate yourself about human trafficking is to educate yourself on the many ways our global society has failed to care for the most vulnerable. 

It’s easy to get on board with anti-human trafficking campaigns when we think of it in terms of of aggressive men kidnapping young women and keeping them in chains. It’s more difficult when it demands personal responsibility - making the shift to fair-trade chocolate and coffee, examining supply chains in your favorite clothing company, or speaking up for the rights of undocumented people. 

When I tell people about what I do, I talk about economic migration, trauma, structural inequalities, and gender-based violence. I believe we do justice to survivors of human trafficking when we talk about their stories in complex and meaningful ways, instead of pulling on dramatic threads of their stories to create consumer content. I believe that we bestow dignity on people when, instead of jumping to clean cut narratives, we take time to understand and learn. 

If you'd like to learn more about human trafficking, Oasis Belgium is hosting a free training on Nov. 30th at our office in Brussels. Please contact us to reserve a spot at abriel.schieffelers@oasisbe.org - we'd love to see you there!