Kelly Cronen has worked on counter-trafficking projects for around nine years, including time working with victims directly. She explains who is most at risk, how a recruitment agency works, and where trafficking is the biggest problem.
What are some common misconceptions about human trafficking?
Too frequently, human trafficking is seen as an extreme evil perpetrated against women (in the case of sex trafficking), perpetrated against the poor (in the case of labor trafficking), perpetrated against ethnic minorities (in the case of slavery), and so on. While trafficking is an evil committed against these groups, we frequently misunderstand the core essence of trafficking.
Any time that one group of humans has power over another group, and when there are inequalities between two groups there is going to be exploitation and abuse. Sometimes this will take the form of trafficking, sometimes this will take the form of gender based violence, and sometimes this will take the form of systematic exclusion and marginalization of a group. How inequality leads to exploitation is dependent on the time and context but it is why integrating measures to promote equality and inclusion are so essential to development programming.
I’ve always felt that one of the things that allows exploitation, such as trafficking, to occur is the problem of conditional sympathy. What I mean by that is the dangerous notion that everyone should be treated fairly and have access to opportunities - except a certain group of people (migrants, women, homeless persons, other minority groups, etc). We have sympathy towards trafficking victims because we understand that since they didn’t have access to education, income-earning opportunities, or justice structures, they were exploited and abused. But then we think of other groups – let’s say commercial sex workers, or migrant laborers from Latin America, or members of the homeless population in any major city. All of these groups also face exploitation and abuse, lack access to education and income-earning opportunities, don’t typically have access to justice structures, but we don’t feel the same sympathy for them because “well, sex workers/migrants/homeless deserve the position they’re in because that’s just how that group is.” That is conditional sympathy, the social narrative that tells us that one group of people deserves to be in a difficult position because how that group is or because that’s what happens to people in that particular group.
How do recruitment agencies work?
In my field work, I didn’t encounter any trafficking cases that were done through a recruitment agency. The way recruitment happens will be very specific to the country context and the type of trafficking – it takes advantage of what is culturally acceptable and preys on the things that people want most. In Albania for example, women were “recruited” into trafficking through a boyfriend, fiancé or husband. Usually the boyfriend said they were going overseas to have a better life and when they’d get there, the women would learn that (1) the man they were with was not their boyfriend/fiancé/husband and that (2) they’d just been sold into trafficking.
But in other Balkan countries, women were recruited into trafficking typically through false job offers to be a nanny, waitress, etc. and then when they’d arrive, their ID documents would be confiscated, they would owe a huge debt to the ‘recruiter,’ they weren’t able to speak the local language nor did they know much about the country, and would ultimately be trafficked.
What are some moments in dealing with this issue that have stayed with you?
This is probably the most difficult question for me to answer because in total I spent about nine years working on counter-trafficking programs. I’ve seen many angles of trafficking and counter-trafficking efforts. While there are a couple of cases that have stuck with me over the years, a couple of issues stand out for me the most. First, while not all trafficking cases use violence to coerce and force people into exploitation, many of the survivors I met had endured high levels of violence.
I was always surprised at what humans will do to one another – and even more surprised that bystanders either didn’t see the violence or choose to ignore it. For example, there was one survivor I knew who had been held captive for five years. When the police finally found her, they deported her back to Albania without providing medical or psycho-social support. When I met her, her hands, arms, knees and ankles were covered in knife marks and deep pock-marked scars from when her trafficker had drilled a screwdriver into her hands, arms, knees and ankles. Like so many of the other women I met, I was dumbfounded that other people hadn’t seen the scars and asked if maybe there was something going on. I think it’s the problem of conditional sympathy that makes us or allows us to ignore times when we see other people in pain.
Another thing that stands out for me is that the traffickers themselves don’t stand out – they don’t have little devil’s horns, they don’t look like a movie super villain, they look like normal people. I went to court once with a survivor and I knew her trafficker would be there. He was extremely violent and well-connected but when I saw him, he was wearing a nice suit, was slightly pudgy, had his wavy hair cut and styled well, and smiled at everyone. Not how I expected him to look or behave.
Another thing that stands out for me, amongst people who work in the counter-trafficking field, is that while some professionals (social workers, lawyers, etc.) have met and worked closely with survivors, most of the professionals who do programming and policy work actually have very little experience talking to survivors. As a result programs are not survivor driven or necessarily responsive to the needs of survivors. This has to change. Survivors know their lives, their needs, their capabilities better than we do and they need to be at the front of shaping how programs are designed and what services are available to them.
Is trafficking a problem in the US or is this mainly an issue overseas?
Human trafficking is a problem everywhere but it manifests differently in each location. There is both labor trafficking and sex trafficking in the U.S. – victims in this country are both U.S.-born American citizens as well as foreign-born migrants. The State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report provides information on trafficking cases as well as efforts to combat trafficking in every country of the world, including in the United States. The 2014 report, http://go.usa.gov/FtYW is a good source of information to learn more about what is happening in different countries.
Who is most at risk for human trafficking? And in what country is it the biggest problem?
The profile of who is most at risk varies by country and context. But usually they have a couple of things in common: potential victims want a better life for themselves and/or their family members, are excluded from formal societal structures that would give them a better life (i.e. access to education and employment opportunities) and do not have access to formal or informal justice mechanisms. In some instances, potential victims come from strong families but the external circumstances are such that there aren’t enough opportunities in their community. In other instances potential victims may have issues in their family that they are trying to get away from. Trafficking is a problem everywhere. But regions which are undergoing or have undergone some kind of major transition (natural disaster, economic crisis, conflict, political transition, etc.) are likely to have more people who feel like their opportunities have been constrained and are willing to take on more risk in order to have a better life.
What are some signs that someone is a victim of human trafficking?
In Albania, most victims were identified at the border point when they were coming back into the country. Many victims were deported back to Albania as illegal migrants because many of the hosting countries treated victims as just another illegal eastern European immigrant and didn’t do thorough screening for victims. In 2007 there were rumors of girls who were being returned to Albania and just disappearing from the borders.
A colleague of mine from the [American] Embassy and I started doing random checks at the border control points to make sure the police were screening for victims (and referring them to social services when necessary) and not just handing the victims back over to their traffickers. I could usually tell within a minute who was likely a victim of trafficking – someone who wouldn’t make eye contact with others, was nervous and withdrawn around the passengers, afraid to speak with officials at the border control, and provided vague or inconsistent information about what they were doing overseas when they were being screened. Most of the women didn’t have any scars on their faces, but almost all had scars from cigarettes, knives, etc. on their hands or arms.
In that setting we were actively looking for potential victims, in other settings it may be harder to identify a victim especially if you’re not actively looking. The Department of Homeland Security has a list of indicators that someone may be trafficked and provides information on how to respond if you suspect a case of trafficking: http://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign/indicators-human-trafficking
What do you do, and how did you get into your line of work?
Currently I am the Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Practice Director at Chemonics International. In this role I help projects at every stage think about how they are being inclusive and not perpetuating inequalities between women and men, between majority and minority groups, etc. Through this position, I am also helping Chemonics design our compliance plan to certify that in no way do any of our projects support any form of human trafficking, in accordance with U.S. federal laws and requirements.
Prior my current position, I worked on counter-trafficking projects for about nine years. I was the Chief of Party on a DC based project that supported USAID to design counter-trafficking programs, was a Contracting Officer’s Representative (COR) for USAID/Albania where I oversaw one of the agency’s largest counter-trafficking portfolios, and was a Peace Corps volunteer where I worked part time in a shelter for victims of trafficking.
I’ve always been interested in women’s issues and particularly issues related to women and migration. In 2003 I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Vlora, Albania, which at the time was a big transit hub for trafficking in persons and other illicit goods. One of the largest shelters for trafficked women, Vatra, was located in Vlora and I worked at Vatra about 3 days per week. I taught English, social skills and helped organize social events for women in the shelter.
During that time I also started an anti-trafficking committee for Peace Corps volunteers in Albania who were doing similar work on counter trafficking. In my two years working at the shelter, about 300 women were repatriated back into Albania through the shelter and I got to know several of the women quite well. I learned about trafficking not from classroom lectures, but by listening to the women’s stories about their lives. In the summer of 2005, the last year of my Peace Corps service, one of the women from the shelter was murdered, another was re-trafficked and a third, who I was rather close to, just disappeared one day. Even though a lot was being done in Albania to address trafficking, there were several gaps in the ability to address the issue – mainly because the anti-trafficking community and particularly the donors, weren’t doing enough to really listen to the needs and experiences of the women who had been trafficked. When I finished my Peace Corps service, I was lucky to get a position with USAID/Albania as the Anti-Trafficking Advisor and was able to start addressing some of the issues I had encountered with the Peace Corps.
While I am not engaged directly in counter-trafficking work in my current position, promoting equality and inclusion in development programs is essential to addressing the root causes of trafficking. When development programs address issues of inequality, we help communities stop perpetuating the power imbalances that create vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.
Interview by Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer