Human Trafficking and PTSD: Why Survivors Deserve Dignity

This post is part of the Mental Health Monday series, in which iustitia examines one aspect of the intersections between mental health and the law. You can find previous posts here

Imagine you have been brought to the United States, by force, coercion, or flat out lies and are then forced to work for your captors. Whether this work is in the form of prostitution or various sweatshop labor, you are unable to escape. You feel completely helpless in a new country with no sense of security.You do not know if this will ever end. Your kidnapping, exploitation, and weeks, months, or years away from your family leave you feeling hopeless, alone, and completely destitute. Suddenly, a light at the end of the tunnel appears. Authorities find you, and you believe that you are going to finally be treated with the dignity and respect you have been hoping and dreaming of. You think - at last, I am free.

As it turns out, the authorities that come to the rescue of trafficking victims have little understanding of the mental health effects of their victimization. So, for most victims of human trafficking, this light at the end of the tunnel leads only to a maze of new tunnels.

Unfortunately, the reality for individuals who survive human trafficking long enough to be rescued by U.S. authorities is that they end up caught in the endless processes of the criminal justice system. Section 7105 of Title 22 of the U.S. Code, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), a provision enacted in 2005 to specifically protect trafficking victims, entitles individuals to education and training for trafficked persons, promotes safe integration into appropriate communities, and provides physical and legal assistance, including immigration benefits. It specifically distinguishes survivors from the criminals that victimized them.

The prolonged effects of trafficking often prevent survivors from taking advantage of the TVPRA’s full protections. Not only have these survivors suffered serious physical ailments, they often suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD develops in some people who have seen or lived through a shocking, traumatizing, or dangerous event. In many trafficking cases, these events lasted for months or years. The victims have been physically and emotionally beaten and taken advantage of from the moment they left their home countries. They are in shock and often so afraid of the world around them that they can barely function. Their rescuers are often men in uniforms that speak a foreign language and carry weapons. Many times, the rescuers resemble those who have victimized them.

The PTSD experienced by survivors is further exacerbated by the fact that after their rescue they are in many ways treated as though they were criminals.  

With better training and sensitization to the needs of trauma survivors and the effects of PTSD, even those most affected can find protection under already existing U.S. law. Ideally, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should put survivors in contact with legal counsel who can assist these individuals in obtaining a T visa under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA). However, in practice, most survivors are poorly treated and then deported to their home countries without even learning that this route is available to help them remain in the United States.

The Iustitia Legal Center supports ending this practice to ensure that all victims of human trafficking are treated with dignity and respect by providing each and every one of these survivors with legal counsel as well as much needed physical and mental treatment.

Also posted on Medium here