If and when a victim of modern slavery is finally free, the long and difficult struggle to lead a healthy, productive life is just beginning. Unfortunately, there is no magic cure for the scars of torture or terror; no quick fixes for the effects of trauma and oppression. And yet, America’s standard approach to trafficking victims is very short term.
I know how long it takes to recover from being enslaved, because I was trafficked myself. At 17 years old, I left Indonesia believing I would go to America, work as a nanny and earn $150 per month.
My trafficker arranged my passport, visa and airline ticket before I left, then took my documents when I arrived. I was forced to work 18 or more hours every day in a home where I endured frequent physical and verbal abuse. I did not speak English, had no money, and believed I would be arrested if I left the home.
After three terrifying years, I found the courage to alert a neighbor. She eventually arranged my escape, and took me to the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST), an organization I now work for that helps trafficking victims rebuild their lives.
That was more than 15 years ago, and I am experienced enough to know how fortunate I was to encounter CAST, one of only a few California organizations that offers the long-term support trafficking victims need. They gave me shelter for two years, taught me English and provided job training that would help me find employment outside the only “industry” in which I had experience.
In my work as an advocate I often meet or hear heartbreaking stories about trafficking survivors who do not have access to this scope of basic but vital services.
Susana was rescued from her trafficking situation then placed in a domestic violence shelter. She gained little in terms of emotional support, because the therapy she received was developed for a very different kind of victim. She was provided a small stipend for food, and forced to leave when she reached the shelter’s three-month limit.
I was forced to work 18 or more hours every day in a home where I endured frequent physical and verbal abuse.
After being homeless for a time, Susana was referred to another domestic violence shelter, where she received basic food and $20 per month for transportation. Six months later, she went through the same stressful search for another shelter. During this time of upheaval, Susana was also working with authorities to prosecute her trafficker, a very time-consuming and emotional process. Despite being “free,” she remained isolated, without adequate support and desperate.
Clearly, Susana’s needs were not being met, and she is but one of thousands of trafficking victims America is failing every year. On Friday, the State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which ranks countries based on how well they address modern slavery. The United States currently has the best possible Tier 1 status, but we must challenge whether the nation is complying with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and demonstrating “appreciable progress in combating trafficking” as the Tier 1 status requires.
I believe that means adequately supporting survivors of the worst human-rights violation of our time, but there are so many services that trafficking victims need and deserve but cannot access.
For starters, we must offer shelter services to both male and female victims, and immediately inform them about their rights. We must offer education, including English as a Second Language (ESL), General Educational Development (GED) classes, and computer skills.
Ideally, we should also offer life skills workshops such as how to find housing and a job; how to open a bank account, manage finances and build credit; how to find low-cost health care; how to apply for education scholarships; and how to drive. Mentorship programs are also beneficial, and service providers should be trained in cultural sensitivity.
Of course, these services will only become available and widespread if the government invests more resources to ensure trafficking victims receive the emergency and long-term support they need and deserve. President Obama recently took a positive step by signing an omnibus budget that included a 41 percent increase in funding for Department of Health and Human Services victims services programs, but so much more is needed.
If we are to maintain our Tier 1 ranking and status as a global leader in the anti-trafficking movement, we must think about the long-term needs of trafficking survivors. We must provide the realistic cures for the scars of torture and terror; and offer fixes that might reverse the effects of trauma and oppression.
Ima Matul is a Survivor Organizer for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST). CAST is based in Los Angeles at 5042 Wilshire Blvd, #586. Contact her or CAST at: (213) 356-1906 x 112