07.26.134:45 AM ET

‘It’s Easy To Find Victims—Justice Is More Complicated’

Inside Sierra Leone's only human-trafficking trauma center. By Nina Strochlic.

Janet Nickel is the anti-trafficking technical coordinator for World Hope International, which operates the Trafficking in Persons Recovery Center, the only holistic high-trauma care center in Sierra Leone. The U.S. State Department recently upgraded the country’s ranking in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report. Here, Nickel shares her experiences treating victims in the aftermath of the war-ravaged nation.

I had been working in Sierra Leone for many years, starting in 1980. I was teaching before I had to leave because of the war in 1995. I’d wanted to go back to Sierra Leone, and the opportunity opened to work with World Hope International and [its] Relief Anti-Human-Trafficking Project in 2004. Up until that time there had been no anti-trafficking messages, no understanding of what human trafficking was, no statistics.

This was right at the end of the war. There were lots of U.N. personnel there and NGOs doing interventions in Sierra Leone. We worked with them, tried to get the issue of human trafficking on the front page in people’s minds, and within first two years of project, we were working with communities doing dramas and radio programs; training teachers, NGO workers, hospital staff, and law enforcement in what human trafficking is; and teaching police officers how to deal with victims and perpetrators. Those things were really getting the ball rolling, and in 2005 Parliament passed—and the president signed—the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act.

Before the TIP Recovery Center, there was nothing comparable. There was nothing that was dealing with high trauma. We would refer cases to orphanages and others to NGOs with street-children outreach. There was an organization that had a shelter for about a year and a half, but was unable to continue. It was definitely seen as a need to have a place and the means of being able to respond to those who had experienced exploitation and abuse.

Trafficking starts in communities, and survivors end up in communities. We started targeting about 20 communities that had high incidences of trafficking or were at risk and tried to get volunteer groups that would become the eyes and ears of the community. They needed to be strong in identifying and responding to trafficking cases and knowing how to pursue legal recourse in a case. That’s one of the main things we’ve been working on since the start of the project. It’s easy to find victims and survivors, but to get justice is much more complicated.

Just over a year ago, we were able to start bringing the first intake into the TIP Recovery Center. A total of 38 [survivors] have started with us, and so far, I think, 19 have been reintegrated. They have ranged from as young as three to their late teens. The most common denominator is they’re often from rural or very impoverished communities and families. There’s the hope of something better, so they’ve been enticed or they’ve been taken advantage of. Sometimes they’re from a family where the father has died or left, and the mother is trying to take care of children with limited means, education, or skills. Either somebody takes advantage of them by force, deception, or enticement. In Sierra Leone there’s a lot of exploitation for labor, and when domestic work is needed, girls and women are usually the ones expected to do it.

Recently in the shelter we had a young girl who was very physically disabled by her experience. She had been staying with her aunt because her parents had died at a young age. She was sold to elderly man in village, and by the time she was 11, she was pregnant. When it came time, she was not able to deliver the baby. It was an extended labor, and she gave birth to a stillborn child. A fistula had been created in the delivery, so she was abandoned and left to die, untreated and uncared for in a room. Six months later, a relative took her to a clinic that cares for women with fistulas and basically dropped her there. They said it was the worst case they had ever seen—she was unable to use her legs. They did all they could and contacted us.

She required a lot of medical care and couldn’t do anything by herself. The staff worked really hard, and after she’d been with us for six months, she finally took her first steps during dance class. I remember when the staff called our office and told us that she was walking. We could hear all the cheers, clapping, and laughter in the background. It was really a big step and such an encouragement to her and everyone else that all of this had been worthwhile. She continued to improve, and finally we were able to find another aunt who was determined to be the safe place for her, so we set up an opportunity for her to have a sewing business. Now she has a tailoring shop, and the aunt has received some assistance to bake bread and sell it in the market. She is being checked up on, and we see things are going well for her there.

We have no intention of putting [the survivors] in long-term institutional care. A plan is put in place where the survivor will be able to leave, and we do what needs to be done to prepare for that. Social workers follow up for a year on a monthly basis to make sure everything’s going OK. At the end of the year, they will determine whether monitoring needs to be continued. There have been a lot of challenges in figuring out what needs to be done, because there is no model to follow in Sierra Leone.

One of the things we had seen in the past with what other organizations were doing is we needed to have good strong staff with sufficient numbers to be able to handle the caseload. The property has a secure compound with space for living quarters, classrooms, and activities. We have 12 house parents who work on two shifts. They are responsible for general care of those survivors: their sleep, food, shelter, and activities. Most have not had good nutrition or medical care and have typhoid and dysentery, which are common in Sierra Leone.

When a survivor comes in, our nurses do an assessment of the medical situation. There are doctors and hospitals [with whom] we have an understanding and who will treat our cases. We have HIV counselors, and if there’s been sexual abuse, there is clinic that specializes in that. The psychological needs are great. We have two counselors who have training in how to deal with sex abuse, trauma, and behavioral issues that come as a part of that. The process is completely monitored through a case management committee, which meets every week to determine how the case is going along. There are all kinds of fun activities devoted to resolve conflict, managing relationships, learning life skills, and educational activities. The survivors come from every level of education, from nothing at all to having been through secondary school.

Sometimes those who are seeing cases in their communities just go back to default mode and say there isn’t anything that can be done about this because that’s the way it has been for years and years. There is much that needs to be done in educating the society, for them to see that maybe the reason that child is only attending school one day a week is because they are basically a domestic slave, spending from 5 a.m. until school working, and then leaving school early to go back to work. We’ve scheduled meetings with family support units, the units of police that deal with domestic violence and children’s issues. Once they get a good understanding, I expect we’ll be getting a lot more cases.

We hold the hands of those in government and walk along together, trying to push this issue ahead. I’d like to see the government take more ownership and more input, for example, providing resources like a site or the actual physical shelter and some funds into supporting it. I would also like to see more church groups involved in the reintegration process, taking these people under their wing. It’s important we’re involved in carrying out what Jesus taught us: to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves.

Sierra Leone is my home. I’m there year-round, except once a year I come back to the States for one or two months. I’ve been involved for so long my head and my heart are full. This work, it’s hard, because you know that people you’re working with have suffered. To be able to do something with them, that’s hard, but it’s also helpful. You also know there are so many more out there who need help, and we’re limited.

For more information on World Hope International's efforts in combating human trafficking, visit