Escaping the Nightmare: Urgent Call for Survivor-Led Solutions in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

Every day, thousands of people are trafficked – sold a dream of a better future, to only be presented with a grim reality of entrapment, slavery, and often sex work. With their passports withheld, their movements restricted, and subject to abuse, inhumane treatment and debt bondage, victims face dire prospects.

Most girls and women only manage to escape their traffickers a long time after their souls and bodies have been destroyed. The three women we recently rescued from the UAE and repatriated home to Nigeria all have harrowing stories and face a long journey ahead to overcome their trauma and build back their lives.

Despite growing awareness of the issue, the scale of human trafficking has only continued to rise. Along with the primary drivers which include economic hardship and displacement from political instability and armed conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the intensifying impacts of climate change have served to push an increasing number of vulnerable victims into the grasp of human traffickers.

This highly complex issue demands a multi-pronged, multi-stakeholder approach, with survivors voices front and centre. Survivors have a unique understanding of the drivers of human trafficking, the tactics used by the traffickers and the needs of victims. A survivor-led approach to trafficking  can help shape prevention policies that get to the heart of the issue and inform best practices to support victims.

Our experience rescuing and repatriating African women trafficked to the UAE, a global hub for human trafficking, demonstrates starkly that victims have little to no options to get help or to make their escape. Upon arriving in the UAE, victim’s passports are confiscated and substituted for fake documents. Failing to carry an ID at all times in the UAE is punishable by law, making it near impossible to escape. Those that do manage to flee their captors are usually unable to book a flight home, with any money ‘earned’ from their sex work taken by their trafficker to service their ‘debt’. Added to which, the stigma and discrimination resulting from their experience further discourages survivors from speaking out and seeking help, and even those who do wish to come forward often struggle to navigate social services or policing systems.

Shockingly, there have been reports of victims who have miraculously made it to Emirati authorities, only to then be turned away, incarcerated or even returned to their brothels. It is entirely inhumane that the survivors’ bravery is not met with the support and compassion that they so desperately need, and it is  unforgiveable that the UAE continues to turn a blind eye to the abhorrent human rights abuses happening on its streets and in its hotels, casinos and night clubs every day. I have no doubt that such offences continued unabated during COP28 which took place in the UAE just a few weeks ago. I hope that attendees and the wider international community use the opportunity to put pressure on the region to level up efforts to root it out.

Despite mounting political momentum and public commitment, we are failing across key areas. The ‘4P’ paradigm, standing for prosecution, protection, preventions, and partnerships serves as the primary global framework governing efforts to combat human trafficking. Over the years, policymakers have focused on the prosecution component – hoping that successful convictions will demonstrate unwavering commitment to eliminating the issue, with more and more funding channelled towards criminal justice. Yet ironically, during this time, the estimated number of trafficking victims has grown, and the number of prosecutions has remained woefully low.

Whilst successful prosecutions go a long way in stamping out impunity and deterring trafficking, we must offer the same level of focus on protection, prevention, and partnership efforts. Survivor associations have issued demands to governments and international bodies to ramp up efforts around the root causes of human trafficking. Traffickers prey on vulnerabilities, including lack of education, to coerce victims – and more must be done at a local level to raise awareness of the issue and educate communities about the methods used by traffickers. Some of the women we have rescued have gone on to lead advocacy efforts in their hometowns to prevent more people falling victim to human trafficking. We have a lot to learn from their bravery and strength.

Survivors must be recognised as key stakeholders in our global, multi-coordinated efforts to stamp out human trafficking. It is promising to see signs of this happening in some parts of the world. For instance, in 2021 the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) established the International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council, made up of 21 leading human trafficking survivors tasked with supporting the organisation in its anti-trafficking efforts in the region. Such initiatives must be replicated in other parts of the world, particularly in regions with a severe and growing trafficking problem, like Africa, and destinations such as the UAE.

Within the UAE, and across the world, millions of people continue to live in the shadows of human trafficking. Given the hidden nature of this issue, it is almost impossible to comprehend its scope or scale. This is why survivors, who have experienced the coercion, deception, and sophisticated strategies of traffickers, must be involved at the highest levels of decision making and program planning. Through doing this, we can build a holistic approach that cuts across every level of the issue, recognising survivors as experts in their own experiences, and upholding their vital role in curbing the practice.

Through listening to their stories, and turning their ideas and aspirations into action, we show an earnest commitment to supporting survivors and rooting out human trafficking once and for all.

This article was written by Fatima Waziri-Azi, Director General of the Nigerian National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), and Angus Thomas, Founder of Send Them Home and Hope Education Project and first appeared in the EU Observer .