Standing Tall: A Vision of Freedom for Survivors of Trafficking

This is a guest post from Jean Bruggeman, Executive Director of Freedom Network USA.

The Freedom Network USA (FNUSA) is committed to the human-rights based approach to addressing human trafficking. That includes: prioritizing the self-determination and choices of survivors, providing non-judgmental services and support and our shared commitment to engaging in prevention by addressing root causes.

The root causes of trafficking are complex and challenging. They have long histories in systems of oppression and discrimination. To end human trafficking in the U.S. will require much more than better training of providers and law enforcement. We cannot end trafficking with an awareness campaign. It will require us to fulfill the promises embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s important that we think strategically and critically about our Vision of Freedom- and explore how that has been impacted by the changes that have surrounded us in the past year.

Last year, when the FNUSA gathered in D.C., we discussed our vision of justice. Our conference title was “Redefining Justice: Envisioning New Approaches in Anti-Trafficking Work.” We discussed the need to define a just community as one that is fair, where we all have an equal shot, where we protect our neighbors- all of our neighbors. The white ones and the brown ones. The gay ones and the straight. The boys and the girls. The children and the adults.

Our vision of freedom is holistic. It is robust. It is inclusive. It is comprehensive. And it is glorious.

However, over the past year, we have seen our country failing to meet this challenge. We have seen the demonization of immigrants, resulting in increased fear of coming forward for services, protection, and support. Our survey of providers working with immigrant survivors of trafficking shows that survivors are less willing to report their victimization, less willing to seek services and less willing to trust law enforcement to protect them from harm.

We have seen continuing attacks on access to health care. Poverty resulting from medical expenses is rising.  Access to abortion and birth control is under specific attack, and these are critical medical services for all women and especially those who have been sexually abused and are seeking to regain control of their bodies.

The LGBTQ community is losing their hard-fought protections in the schools, the military and in communities across the country. We know that LGBTQ youth are at increased risk of homelessness and trafficking, and yet we can’t even agree to protect their access to the bathroom.

Sex workers across the country continue to be arrested, shamed and exploited. New legislation is shutting down some key harm reduction resources that have allowed sex workers to avoid traffickers and abusive clients. Forcing sex workers onto the streets and into the shadows will only increase the abuse and exploitation that they face.

Visa restrictions continue to entrap workers in exploitive and abusive workplaces. Instead of pushing for visa portability and increased transparency in work-related visas, we are scrutinizing the social media accounts of visa applicants and increasing the power of employers to threaten their workers.

And yet, we are standing tall. We are changing lives, one survivor at a time. We are building programs, alliances and networks. We are ensuring that legislation includes a mandate for victim-centered services.

Furthermore, we are celebrating success. The Department of Homeland Security Blue Campaign Authorization Act of 2018 includes a direction to DHS to follow trauma-informed practices and to ensure survivors have prompt access to victim services and immigration relief. FNUSA drafted that language.

In February, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Affairs and Office for Victims of Crime clarified that Task Forces cannot use Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act funds for arresting sex workers or for john stings that are not designed to identify victims. This is a critical acknowledgement that arresting sex workers is the very antithesis of victim-centered work.

Survivors are increasingly attaining justice and leading us forward.  Survivors have filed more than 275 federal civil cases. Nine Survivor Leaders were appointed to the U.S Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, including FNUSA member Nat Paul. The Advisory Council is charged with advising federal government agencies on improving their approach to human trafficking, and ensuring that survivors continue to be consulted is a critical step forward.

We are strong, committed and we will not be deterred. We will continue to fight for justice.

As Dr. King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  This is not a sprint. It is a marathon. We will not end human trafficking with a single campaign, it will take a comprehensive effort over many years to dismantle to systems that support and enable trafficking. We are part of a broad and comprehensive movement for justice. Dr. King showed us the way- stay strong, don’t be dismayed or discouraged, stay together and keep marching.




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