A blog by Araminta Jonsson

Modern slavery is a complex crime, appearing in many different forms. Sexual exploitation; forced labour; organ harvesting; forced begging, and organised theft can all be connected to modern slavery. Those who slave drive and human traffic, those who oversee the keeping and oppressing of slaves, do so against the basic idea our society has of humanity. Personal freedom no longer exists for a victim of human trafficking. Aside from violence and threats to themselves and their families, many victims of slavery and trafficking are led into lives of abuse, servitude, and grossly inhumane treatment.

In the UK, the number of potential victims of trafficking referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in 2016 totalled 3,085[1]. This statistic shows that this is not an uncommon crime, potentially happening right under our nose.

When substance use and misuse is introduced, it can become extremely difficult for a victim to escape, as debt bondage and dependency usually follow. Many victims are sexually exploited, forced into work for very little to no pay, or coerced into committing crimes against their will. A report lead by Neil Parkes and commissioned by The Salvation Army and The Black Country Women’s Aid (BCWA), titled “A Few Doors Down”, demonstrate the links between substance misuse and modern slavery, ‘people who have substance misuse problems can be exploited because of their dependence and vulnerability, while attitudes towards them can often be judgmental and unsupportive.[2]’

As highlighted in Parkes’ report, and as well we know, attitudes towards substance misuse in our society are not always as compassionate as they could be. In the past there has been and still is today, a tendency to avoid or look down upon those with substance misuse issues because ‘they did it to themselves’, or ‘it was their choice.’ In reality those who suffer from drug dependency and addiction are some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. Whether it was through an initial choice or if it was coercion, those experiencing difficulties with dependency are in a vicious cycle of misuse, and their physical and mental health is at an extremely high risk of deterioration. Beyond the harm to one’s health, dependency issues often lead to debt bondage, and when trafficking is involved the user becomes tied to their supplier and is easily coerced into exploitative circumstances. Many victims of trafficking go through traumatic experiences such as sexual exploitation, hard labour, and physical and mental abuse. The harm that these situations do the victims mental health results in serious problems including depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder.

Child victims are some of the most heavily traumatised as a result of their trafficking. This trauma also leads to high rates of severe mental disorders among children who have been trafficked. Research by the Helen Bamber Foundation states that ‘in a study of 387 child and adolescent survivors of human trafficking (82% female; ages ranging between 10 and 17) attending post trafficking services in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, 56% screened positive for depression, 33% for anxiety and 26% for PTSD (Kiss et al., 2015b). The majority of the girls in this study had a history of trafficking for sexual exploitation whereas the boys had all experienced labour exploitation.[3]’

In 2016, a study was undertaken by the American Journal of Public Health to investigate the physical and mental health effects of violence on victims of human trafficking. The findings show that a large number of survivors experienced ‘medium to long-term physical, sexual, and mental health problems, including injuries, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), and probable depression, anxiety, and PTSD.[4]’ It is clear then that victims of trafficking are in dire need of quality health care, including physical, mental, and sexual health care.

Therefore, modern slavery and human trafficking is a matter of public health as well as criminal justice. Fortunately, there are organisations and health services working hard to tackle the health issues faced by victims. Unseen UK, an anti-slavery organisation, work towards fighting the prevalence of modern slavery in our society, their mission being ‘to support and enable the discovery of, and response to, incidents of modern slavery and exploitation.[5]’ However, the issues faced by victims of human trafficking are extremely complex and therefore difficult to work with ‘due to the interaction of substance misuse, mental health problems, fear, and previous trauma that victims carry with them.[6]’

It is also worth noting that help is not always easy to access for victims of human trafficking, as they are treated inhumanely by their oppressors and may be considered criminals in the eyes of the law due to the crimes they may have been forced to commit. In a statement obtained by the Centre for Social Justice, from the Deputy Chief Constable, it clearly expresses how ill-equipped even the police force is is in dealing with the issue of trafficking; ‘One girl escaped from a brothel and went to a police station to tell them that she had been trafficked. She had no passport. Under these confusing circumstances, we chose to arrest her for being an illegal immigrant.[7]’ Therefore, although, as previously mentioned, in 2016 he number of potential victims of trafficking referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) totally just over 3000, it is likely that there are many more as victims are loathe to report what is happening to them and many hide in plain sight.

The Links with Addiction

A study on drug addiction was conducted in the 1970’s by Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander and his colleagues at Simon Fraser University, BC, Canada. The study, entitled Rat Park[8], observed that when left alone in a cage with two feeding bottles, one filled with water and one with heroin or cocaine, the rat subject would repeatedly feed from the laced bottle, until they overdosed and died. Alexander experimented with the living circumstances of the rats, after considering the effect of the environment on the rats behaviour.

In his experiment, Alexander placed rat subjects in cages where they had the company of other rats, the freedom to roam, play, socialise and have sex. The research found that the second group, the rats with the freedom to play, took the water from the laced bottle significantly less often, more often preferring the clean water. Occasions on which a rat consumed the laced water were few and far between, with no cases of overdose[9]. Here it is clear to see the power of social community over drug addiction.

If we consider the living conditions of trafficking victims, coupled with society’s attitude towards individuals suffering from dependency issues, it becomes easy to see the link between trafficking and addiction. Most victims of trafficking are robbed of their freedom to roam, play, and socialise. Sex is often unsolicited, causing a sense of violent intrusion on a victims mind and body. Isolation from society due to forced hard labour, deteriorating mental health, or potential drug abuse and the resulting ostracising from society, can lead to feelings of loneliness and despair.

Therefore victims of human trafficking, like the lone caged rat, are at a much higher risk of beginning or continuing with a drug addiction than people with more personal freedoms and less trauma based conditioning.