The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines coercion, one element of human trafficking, as “(A) threats of serious harm to or physical restraint against any person, (B) any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act would result in serious harm to or physical restraint against any person, or (C) the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process. It is important to understand the specific, coercive techniques human traffickers utilize in order to treat survivors and prosecute perpetrators.
The ultimate goal of human traffickers is to strip the trafficked person of their sense of self. Sometimes traffickers will change the name of the trafficked individuals to erase any sense of a past life. However, in order to get the trafficked person to view themselves as worthless and solely in existence to serve, the trafficker must exercise complete control over all facets of the trafficked person’s life.
In order to physically restrain the trafficked person, he or she is often confined to one area when not at work. Preventing the free movement of the individual and isolating them in a solitary environment can result in sensory deprivation. This condition disorients the trafficked person and makes them easier to control. Even if the trafficker does not successfully manipulate the senses of the trafficked person, the individual can develop other psychological reactions, such as cabin fever. On the other hand, the trafficker may place the trafficked person in an overcrowded living space, instilling a claustrophobic fear due to continual presence in the environment and an inability to escape. In either case, knowing that only the trafficker can free them from the confined, stressful environment, the trafficked person will often comply to escape these conditions.
Another means that traffickers employ to undermine the trafficked person’s sense of identity stems from the deprivation of food, water, and sleep. The denial of these basic necessities of life can act as a form of learned conditioning. If the trafficked person complies with orders, they are given enough of these basic needs. If he or she resists, they are denied of these necessities until they learn to comply.
In addition to controlling the physical environment and material needs, the trafficker typically limits all personal connections of the trafficked person with the outside world. The trafficker prohibits interaction with family through correspondence. In addition, the trafficked person is often instructed to never communicate with anyone not authorized by the trafficker. However, this is often not a problem since the trafficker will ensure that the trafficked person is surrounded by people that do not speak their language, creating a strong barrier against communication. This constrained environment creates an almost impenetrable sense of isolation. If the trafficked person does develop outside connections, the trafficker will often transfer them to a new location. Thus, the trafficked person is kept in a state of helplessness. With no one to turn to for help, they believe that they must continue to endure abusive conditions.
An equally strong form of coercion to eliminate the individual’s sense of identity includes forcing the trafficked person to perform actions that are fundamentally against their moral or belief system. By harming others or acting in ways that are degrading, the trafficked person may dissociate. In dissociation, the trafficked person will separate their sense of identity from the person performing the offensive actions. The two split identities will clash and can result in a confused sense of identity for the individual.
Less visible forms of control attack the trafficked person’s sense of security. Denied of economic resources, the trafficked person is completely dependent on the trafficker. Due to this condition of dependency, the trafficker has free will to exercise control through nearly any means. The trafficker gradually breaks down the individual’s perception of their safety through repeated verbal abuse that includes threats of physical harm. Other means to coerce the trafficked person into a state of obedience include threats to report the individual to immigration officers. If threatening the individual does not result in compliance, the trafficker can exercise threats on the trafficked person’s family in their home country.
Traffickers also take advantage of the trafficked person’s lack of knowledge of laws in the United States. They teach the trafficked individuals that the authority is corrupt, often as in their home nations, and that reaching out for help will inevitably result in their death. Likewise, traffickers employ cultural beliefs to prevent escape. For example, in some cultures the notion of paying back debt is viewed as an absolute principle. Traffickers keep raising the debt of these trafficked persons through false charges in order to keep them indebted for life.
If all of these means fall, the traffickers may resort to a more expensive but extremely effective method of coercion. Through introducing trafficked individuals to addictive drugs, the trafficker can create an almost unbreakable form of dependency. Despite how strong the will of resistance of a the trafficked person, they will begin to comply because the symptoms of withdrawal are too difficult to fight when combined with a deprivation of sleep, water, and food.
The methods of coercion that traffickers utilize work to subjugate the free will of trafficked persons. Once trafficked persons are rescued, their mental state should be treated as equally important as repairing physical ailments. Fixing their perception of not only the world, but also of themselves should be a priority.
Our ability to recognize these methods of coercion is important not only in the healing process of survivors, but also in the prosecution of traffickers. Cases such as United States v. Mussry (1984) demonstrate that proving psychological coercion is sufficient to demonstrate conditions of human trafficking and thereby warrant indictment of the traffickers.
Raising awareness of the mental effects of human trafficking could serve to increase identification of trafficked persons and enhance methods of treatment. Clearly, the psychological effect of these methods of coercion should also be considered in the court of law to prosecute traffickers for the full effect they have on their victims.