Women are not vulnerable simply because they are women, nor do the women we support in our trafficking provision lack the capacity or the intelligence to make life choices. Many of these women come from societies that do not recognise their equality or view them as “lesser” human beings and they have been made vulnerable due to circumstances over which they have no control.
Women from Northern Albania are a pertinent example as Albanian women form our largest single group of trafficked women. In the North of Albania, there is a societal system known as the Kanun of Lek which explicitly views women as inferior to men and which circumscribes their opportunities to work, or to access social activities. The Kanun is based on the harmful practices of forced marriage, blood feuds and ‘honour’ related abuse; many women become vulnerable to trafficking in an attempt to escape these practices.
Other women may become vulnerable due to, for example, their sexuality in societies in which LGBT people are criminalised, or because they wish to escape ‘cultural’ practices including female genital mutilation. Women who seek to escape may become isolated from family and community and become ‘targeted’ by those who wish to gain through the exploitation of others.
Women become vulnerable to being trafficked for a variety of reasons, but what is very clear is that perpetrators seek to gain complete control over a woman in order to achieve reward, usually financial. This control may be physical, but there will always be an element of psychological control which can make it extremely difficult for a woman to leave an exploitative situation.
All victims of trafficking experience forms of coercion and control, but the situation for many women is further compounded by her role as primary carer for children or older relatives. Threats to family members in the country of origin can play a huge role in allowing a perpetrator to retain control over a woman. Equally, using the threat of deportation or imprisonment on women with un-regularised immigration status is used to keep the women compliant and hidden from law enforcement or support agencies.
Our role as support workers and the role of the UK in identifying and supporting victims of trafficking should therefore be to give back control and agency to women who have had it stripped from them. I believe that many of the processes and working practices do not do this, rather they can serve to remove control and further harm the women who should be supported to recover from the trauma of trafficking.
There is currently no formal regulation of frontline agencies that support victims of trafficking, and some organisations appear to have a very paternalistic approach to trafficked women. The ethos of these agencies can appear to be that of ‘saving’ and ‘rescuing’, and the women’s movements are curtailed or subjected to scrutiny. This infantilising approach may only serve to reinforce a woman’s sense that she is ‘allowed’ herself to be trafficked and thus complicit in her exploitation. This can therefore further damage self-belief and self-efficacy. In this manner, we compound a woman’s vulnerability to re-victimisation.
Equally, the processes that underpin the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) − its purpose is to identify victims of trafficking and refer them to support − can also further harm women who ‘consent’ to a referral.
The NRM is problematic for several reasons, not least of which is the problem of achieving the informed consent of a woman who has experienced significant trauma. Obviously, information is required in order for a decision-maker to make an ’I suspect but cannot prove’ decision that someone may be a potential victim of trafficking (PVOT); however, if distressing information is taken from a woman outside a relationship of some trust, it can be re-traumatising.
Once a woman has been recognised as a potential victim of trafficking, she is given rights and entitlements in the UK, irrespective of her immigration status. One of these rights is access to free legal and immigration advice. The fact that this can only be accessed once the woman has been identified as a PVOT is of concern. Entry into the NRM process means a woman will come to the attention of the Home Office and therefore, there may be implications for her future status and ability to remain in the UK. Pre-NRM immigration advice would allow a woman to decide on an NRM referral in full awareness of the implications as well as access to support and entitlements.
Following her period of support in the NRM, if a woman is conclusively recognised as a victim of trafficking, there is currently no mandatory grant of leave to remain in the UK. A twelve-month period of discretionary leave can be awarded, but is dependent on other factors.
Further, there is currently no Home Office funded post-NRM support which means the provision of resettlement or ongoing support is patchy. Many women will have complex and enduring needs that require the consistent support from workers they know and trust. This is not about creating relationships of dependency between the woman and her worker, but about acknowledging the need to do no further harm or to re-traumatise.
Finally, there is no right of appeal attached to an NRM decision. Currently, the percentage of positive decisions is around 35%, which, in my experience, does not reflect the reality of women’s experiences. A negative decision can compound a woman’s feelings of guilt, and support the perceived power of the perpetrator who told her that if she disclosed her exploitation, no one would believe her.
If we are to avoid doing further harm to women who have been trafficked, we need to understand those issues that made them vulnerable to exploitation. We need to support them to take back control, to recover, and to develop self-determination. Most importantly we need to ensure that our models of support, and those processes which are contrived to protect and provide that support, do no further harm to women that are already vulnerable and traumatised.