By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
A man walks into a mall. His eyes scan the crowds. Finally, he spots what he’s looking for: a teenage girl. Maybe 12 or 13 years old. Alone.
“Wow, you’re really beautiful, you know,” he says.
If she ignores him, dismisses him, or accepts the compliment with grace and walks off, he knows she’s not his girl. But if she pauses, smiles shyly, fishes for more – “Oh really, you really think so? Me?” – he knows he has a victim.
Human traffickers in developed countries prey on girls with low self esteem. They can “spot that weakness almost instantly,” insists Dr Mellissa Withers, an associate professor at the University of Southern California who focuses on gender-based violence.
It’s not only men. Withers recalls an instance in which a girl was recruited from an American mall – by another woman. This time she was told she could be a model. The woman established trust, taking the girl to photo shoots, treating her to gifts, showering her with compliments. By the time she was sold for sex she was fully groomed.
Second only to the drug trade in size, human trafficking is estimated to be a US$150 billion industry with an estimated 24.9 million people trapped in modern-day slavery world- wide. According to a 2017 report from the International Labor Organization and Walk Free Foundation, 16 million – or 64 per cent – of victims are exploited for labour, 4.8 million (19 per cent) are exploited for sex, and 4.1 million (17 per cent) are exploited for state-imposed forced labour.
It is as much an industrialised problem as a developing world problem: recently the National Crime Agency reported a 35 per cent jump in the number of people trafficked into the UK, mostly from Albania (around half work in the sex industry; the other half in domestic or labour servitude). As Sky News reported, some victims are brutally beaten, live under lock and key, and are repeatedly raped.
In one high-profile case in 2017, British model Chloe Ayling, then aged 20, was drugged at a photo shoot in Milan, stuffed into a suitcase in a car trunk, and sedated with ketamine, a tranquiliser usually used on horses. The Polish man convicted of her kidnapping intended to sell her on the ‘dark web’ for porn, according to media reports. Learning she had a child, he eventually set her free, saying it was against the crime organisation’s rules to kidnap mothers.
But while the term ‘modern-day slavery’ plays into a stereotype of cages and chains, beatings and shackles, victims are more often than not held captive through mental, rather than physical, abuse.
Indeed, many trafficked victims have cell phones and regular contact with the outside world. The girl picked up in a mall by another woman still lived at home with her (unsuspecting) parents while working as a child prostitute.
People believe “that when someone is trafficked it’s like the Hollywood version where they’re kidnapped and they’re drugged and they’re chained to a bed and held against their will,” notes Withers. Often the more sinister truth is that “the traffickers are master manipulators”.
In cases of sex work, traffickers will often build up – then bit by bit break down – their victim’s self- esteem and sense of self-worth, thereby creating dependency on their abuser, and in some cases a sort of Stockholm syndrome.
The key is to make the outside world seem terrifying. Victims are told that the trafficker is their protector; that if they tell anyone else what is happening they will be arrested, or their reputations will be ruined, or their families will reject them. “So they really capitalise on feelings of shame,” says Withers.
Paula Tavrow is a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. For one project she interviewed women trafficked into servitude in California. The women, mostly in their 20s, uneducated, and from poor families in the Philippines and Mexico, were told that they would have a new life in the United States.
Most felt like they were winning the lottery. “It was a chance to travel, to make good money, hard currency, possibly even resettle, marry an American – they felt this was a really great chance for them,” says Tavrow.
Yet, once there, their passports were taken away. They found themselves working long, exhausting shifts in nail bars or nursing homes, handing over their scant pay cheque to a ‘minder’ to pay off their airfare ‘debt’.
Unlike women trafficked into the sex industry, the girls Tavrow interviewed were never touched. Bruises of any sort would raise alarms in a workplace. They were kept in line – and obedient – through a combination of psychological manipulation, constant monitoring, and veiled threats.
Girls were given cell phones so they could be tracked. Often they had no locks on their doors, so their traffickers could drop by unannounced. Many were consistently woken up during the night to be put to work: sleep deprivation, after all, is a form of torture to break down individual will and spirit. The girls were told if they buckled down and paid off their ‘expenses’ and debt, eventually they’d be let free.
Worse still, traffickers reminded the girls that they were undocumented migrants with no family in America, no rights, and no passport. “If we made you disappear, nobody would know,” they were told.
As Tavrow puts it: “They don’t need to break their bones.”
Psychologically, the recipe is simple: disempower, dehumanise, and degrade the victim, as well socially isolate them, to turn them into a robot. The trafficker wields so much power in everyday life that the victim is happy “for any little scrap: a free day or any little money to buy sanitary supplies or underwear,” says Tavrow. “Victims are not starved: that’s why they blend into society. You could be in a mall and someone could be next to you buying a bra and she could be a trafficked person.”
In order to stop the victims talking, traffickers tell them to be wary of the very people who could help them: police or health workers. Shame is also a factor. “Often people don’t want to have the stigma of exploitation attached to them, people don’t want to carry around a label, to be known forever as a slave,” Anti-Slavery Australia’s Jennifer Burn told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2016.
Men, in particular, who make up an estimated 25 per cent of trafficking victims (many put to work down the mines or in construction), blame themselves. Virginia-based clinical supervisor Bonnie L. Martin told the American Psychological Association in 2017 that trafficking chisels away at a victim’s sense of ‘manhood’: “My male clients often believe they should have been man enough to stop the trafficking and abuse from occurring.”
Education is one critical way to stop trafficking. In developing countries, Tavrow believes that trafficking storylines should be woven into soap operas. “News stories don’t really register, but a TV show which features someone that looks just like them [hits a chord],” she says. Meanwhile Withers asserts that in countries like America, education starts at home by building up self-confidence; by telling young girls, in particular, what to look out for and what, and who, to avoid.
“The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall,” Mahatma Gandhi once said. “Freedom and slavery are mental states.”
Trafficking stays with a victim long after they are set free. Withers recalls one girl who had given up the sex work and was receiving counsel- ling and support. But her trafficker continued to have such a hold on her that she still slaved away at three jobs: at a general store, a coffee shop, and a frozen yogurt stand. All so that she could give him cash and stay emotionally connected to him.
“She was doing what it took to appease him,” says Withers. “And keep him.”
From the ‘Being Human’ edition of New Philosopher, produced with The New York Times.