Factors inhibiting the identification and investigation of human trafficking cases

monique_esmerAuthor: Monique Emser
Research Associate, Department of Criminal and Medical Law, University of the Free State, South Africa

World Day of Social Justice – Ending human trafficking and forced labour: 20 February 2015

Law enforcement efforts have failed to keep pace with the mutable phenomenon of human trafficking despite the fact that it is regarded as the fastest growing and second most profitable criminal enterprise after drug trafficking.

The biggest challenge facing law enforcement in human trafficking cases is finding victims and their traffickers in the first place, since human trafficking involves the movement and concealment of victims.

Victims of human trafficking often do not self-identify as such. There are numerous reasons for this. Some victims may have consciously engaged in illicit activities, such as undocumented migration into the Republic or engaging in sex work. In such cases, ‘victims are unlikely to report their victimisation to the police or seek help from service providers.’[1] Where trafficking occurs within diaspora communities, self-identification and reporting to the police are even lower.

Others are too traumatised by their experiences and remain in denial. Distrust of law enforcement, fear of retaliation by traffickers, a lack of understanding of basic rights, are further inhibiting factors in relation to victim cooperation and investigation.

The biggest challenge facing law enforcement in human trafficking cases is finding victims and their traffickers in the first place since human trafficking involves the movement and concealment of victims.
No choice

One of the least appreciated, albeit most significant factors, inhibiting victim identification and investigation of human trafficking cases is the fact that victims are less likely to be cooperative with law enforcement where a lack of viable alternatives to their trafficking situation exists.

Without the identification of victims, the whole issue of assistance and protection becomes superfluous. In the absence of adequate identification, victims of trafficking do not have access to either rights or protection. It is important to point out that identification does not exclusively mean ‘self-identification’ or how victims relate to their personal experiences. Although it is still the case that victims contact the police or other organisations, this form of self-identification is not the most effective. Trafficked persons often do not perceive themselves as victims and are not aware of the legal implications of the term.[2]

This is one particular area where awareness-raising falls short. Typically, awareness of human trafficking is limited to the superficial description of the crime itself and vulnerability. Few awareness campaigns target the question of rights and legal implications of victim status. This gap needs to be addressed by counter-trafficking practitioners, particularly in sub-populations where vulnerability and exploitation are high and recognition or awareness of rights is low – such as sex workers, manual labourers, beggars, rural and diaspora communities.

Trafficking survivors are often stigmatised and shunned from their communities, resulting in secondary trauma and revictimisation. This may also have an impact on self-identification and a willingness to cooperate with law enforcement and the prosecution.

Primary prevention, through awareness-raising, is viewed by counter-trafficking practitioners as a vital measure in reducing vulnerability. However, while there have been notable successes in raising general awareness of the crime in South Africa, little has been done in the way of educating communities, reducing vulnerability and the stigma surrounding ‘victimhood’.

One disturbing trend captured by the LexisNexis quarterly Human Trafficking Awareness Index™ report was the overzealousness of the community to take justice into its own hands based on rumour. Moral panic and mass hysteria, fuelled by social media platforms, led to an East London community inflicting serious injuries on two innocent men and the death of a schoolboy falsely believed to be involved in child trafficking. It was suggested that this dangerous mob mentality was fuelled by fears that the police can’t or won’t do anything to stop the scourge of sexual violence, particularly against children, and thus the community needs to take the law into their own hands.

Thus, while the community play an integral role in providing law enforcement and service providers with valuable information about potential sites of exploitation, community involvement needs to be tempered with a respect for the rule of law and processes. The role of law enforcement building strong relationships with such communities is vital. Perceived corruption and collusion on the part of counter-trafficking practitioners, particularly public officials, needs to be forcefully addressed to mitigate the reoccurrence of such a tragic event.

In addition, reporting of cases of human trafficking will continue to lag even as general awareness of the crime grows ‘until first responders and vulnerable individuals and communities become familiar with the specific elements and dynamics of this “new crime”, the sanctions established for offenders, the protections available to victims, and the practical tools available for its identification.’[3]

This should serve as a cautionary note for policymakers who base resource allocation on the actual number of victims assisted. Human trafficking is a unique crime in this regard, as it is hidden by nature making victim identification especially challenging using traditional reactive methods.

[1] Amy Farrell, Jack McDevitt, Stephanie Fahy, ‘Understanding and Improving Law Enforcement Responses to Human Trafficking: Final Report’, (December 2008): 6.

[2] Danish Red Cross, Good practices in response to trafficking in human beings: Cooperation between civil society and law enforcement in Europe, (2005): 42 – 43.

[3] Neil A. Weiner and Nicole Hala, ‘Measuring Human Trafficking: Lessons from New York City’, Vera Institute of Justice, (October 2008): viii.

About the Author:
This is the second in a series of three related opinion pieces written by Monique Emser, PhD, who wrote this in her personal capacity. She is an expert on human trafficking in South Africa. She works as a research associate with the Department of Criminal and Medical Law at the University of the Free State, as well as a member of the KwaZulu-Natal Human Trafficking, Prostitution, Pornography and Brothels Task Team. She also wrote the first two LexisNexis Human Trafficking Awareness Index™ reports available at www.lexisnexis.co.za/ruleoflaw

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