Who is a victim of human trafficking? That is the question that you constantly have to answer when working on the victim’s assistance project. The truth is that most victims of human trafficking do not even know that they are victims of trafficking. To identify themselves as victims, they would have to be able to comprehend human trafficking. This is the reason why the awareness workshops held by HAART to educate the public on human trafficking are vital. Most of the victims are able to identify themselves as victims as soon as they go through the training. Identification is the first step of victim’s assistance. The identification process is two way. Both the organization and the victim should be able to see through the victim’s story that human trafficking occurred.

A majority of our victims are identified through this process or referred to us by our volunteers and partners. However, the Libya case was special (read the background here). We initially heard about victims in Libya through our Facebook page. A woman who was working in Libya approached us and told us that some Kenyans were being abused by their employers in Libya. After going through our Facebook page she could identify that the women she was talking about were victims of human trafficking. By the time she was contacting us, she had very little information about the cases and we advised her to get the information so that we can be able to assist. It is interesting that this woman was one of the women we rescued in December. Her story was a classical human trafficking case yet at the time that she approached us she could not identify herself as a victim. This leads us to the question: Why is it difficult for these victims to see their experiences as a gross violation of basic human rights?

We rescued 31 women from Libya. We had cases of physical, psychological and even sexual abuse. However, despite the pain and clear violation of human rights, most of these women could not identify what they went through as abuse. According to them, the only thing that they complained about was the fact that they were not paid. This is the injustice that they feel was done to them. Most of them left home because they were the sole bread winners and coming back home empty handed means that their loved ones will go hungry. This situation is what makes them bitter about their experience. They are not bitter about being overworked, beaten or even raped.

Their background information reveals that most of them were victims of gender based violence before they left for Libya. Some even confessed that it is the unbearable situation at home that made them travel. For most of these women, abuse is not something new to them. Abuse has been their reality for years. Therefore, trying to explain to the victims that going through that kind of abuse is not normal is not easy. Most of them do not show the obvious signs that we associate with people that have gone through trauma. They do not look depressed, angry or even shaken. Their background has taught them to deal with that kind of trauma. They have numbed the pain and learned to smile despite everything. It is only after careful observation that you can see the effects of the trauma.

These women survive in an environment where their rights are constantly being violated. Therefore, identifying themselves as victims is new to them. Some even declined psychosocial support because they thought that they did not need it. According to them, they were fine. These are the issues that make identification a difficult process. The Libya group did not go through a workshop but when they arrived we screened them by interviewing them about their experience. Almost all of them were victims of human trafficking based on what they went through. Out of the group of 31 only 3 showed visible signs of the trauma that they went through. The rest looked fine despite the horrific experiences that they had gone through. This shows that the question whether one is a victim of trafficking is not easy to answer. It is obvious that you cannot rely on what you see. Therefore, listening to their story is crucial if you are to answer the question whether one is a victim.

By Sophie Otiende