The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2004:42) defines human trafficking as the: recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of the threat or coercion or forms of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.
Exploitation shall include the exploitation of the prostitution of others or sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. Hoyle, Bosworth and Dempsey (2011:315) explain that being a victim is a social construction, which means that victim status is determined by those who have the power to assign or reject such a label. Victims of human trafficking face many challenges when they are recognized as victims by government authorities and/or non-governmental organizations because of stigma, consent and the hierarchy of victims.
According to Weitzer (2011), sex trafficking is often conflated with sex work. This means that all commercial sex work is often linked to trafficking due to the claim that women working in the sex industry have been trafficked and forced into that industry. It is important to note that sex work and human trafficking are two different topics. Cheryl Overs (2002:2) defines sex work as the exchange of money or goods for sexual services and it always involves a client and a sex worker, whereas human trafficking involves coercion, force, fraud, deception and/or abuse.
However, since these two terms are often conflated, victims of human trafficking face stigma much like sex workers do. Hannem and Bruckert (2012: 57) explain that stigma is an “attribute that reduces an individual from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one”. Consequently, victims of human trafficking may be marked with shame or disgrace due to their circumstances. Furthermore stigma persist across time and space (Hannem and Bruckert, 2012), therefore they will never lose their status as a victim and/or survivor of human trafficking.
When victims of human trafficking are recognized as victims, they may face blame for their victimization, discrimination in housing or employment, social isolation and shame. For example: some victims and/or survivors of human trafficking may be blamed for their victimization if they chose to enter prostitution. Since sex work and human trafficking are often conflated, this may lead to the rejection of victim status. Moreover, notions of the “ideal victim” versus illegitimate victims are constructed once organizations are aware that a victim had consented to the sex industry.
Hoyle et al. (2011) describe ideal victims as children, people who have never consented to sex work and people who were deceived, kidnapped and forced. With that said, if a woman has consented to prostitution than she is no longer a victim of trafficking because she chose to enter that industry. Furthermore, victim blaming will continue to exist because these women did not assimilate their lives around the ideal image or construction of what it means to be a real victim.
Thus, victims of human trafficking may face less legal intervention if their lived experience does not fit in to the preconceived notions of an ideal victim. Becoming a victim validates the lived experiences of that individual. Stereotypical assumptions based off the image of an “ideal victim” can determine the criteria to whose story deserves the most attention. Hoyle et al. (2011:315) describe Nils Christie (1986) five criteria of the “ideal victim”. The criteria are: (1) The victim is weak. Sick, old or very young people are articularly well suited as ideal victims. (2) The victim was carrying out a respectable project (3) She was where she could not possibly be blamed for being. (4) The offender was big and bad. (5) The offender was unknown and in no personal relationship to her. That being said, these criteria construct a social hierarchy of victims where not all victims are created equal. Therefore, the criteria produces images of slavery while also ignoring the agency and choice of victims who entered prostitution and then were forced into trafficking.
Narrowed understandings of the “ideal victim” ignore the complexity and content specific nature of consent. Additionally, the hierarchy of victims encourages the construction of ideal victim narratives and creates challenges for victims who do not fall under the criteria. Through examination of stigma, consent and the hierarchy of victims, it is clear that there is power in the victim label. The power of the label may have many social and legal implications on victims of human trafficking. Hoyle et al. 2011)
Explain that women who escaped trafficking had more negative experiences with authorities than they did positive experiences. Specifically, some victims were charged with immigration fraud and placed in jail or deported which reveals how they were seen more as criminals rather than victims. By educating the public at large about the prejudice against trafficked women, victims will be empowered to talk about their lived experiences and global efforts to counter human trafficking may be more successful as current legislation offers limited protection for victims.