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Opinion: A human trafficking survivor’s plea
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Opinion: A human trafficking survivor’s plea

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In 2017, the International Labour Organization reported that 3.8 million adults were trafficked for forced sexual exploitation and 1 million children were trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation.

In 2019, the Polaris U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline documented 22,326 trafficking victims and survivors, 11,500 instances of human trafficking, 4,384 traffickers, and 1,912 suspicious businesses.

In February 2021, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that trafficking victims tripled in 2020 because of effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as decreased work and social support, and because children have been out of school. These numbers are only the victims that are reported. Many more are never identified.

The U.S. Office of Justice Program has addressed the toll of prolonged abuse from human trafficking. The repeated traumas can lead to a lifetime of disability and emotional scars, including self-harm behaviors like suicidal thoughts, attempts, and completion. Survivors typically wrestle with lasting trauma-induced depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are led by their perpetrators to believe that it is their fault. This is a common issue with many types of prolonged trauma.

Human trafficking exists solely on the exploitation, abuse, manipulation, and dehumanizing trauma of the victim. Prior trauma makes victims vulnerable to grooming and recruitment. Perpetrators use trauma bonding to keep victims close. They intentionally cultivate power differences manipulating feelings of love and loyalty.

Vulnerable populations become targets of human trafficking due to their connections in identity-based oppression and weak social institutions. According to Andrea J. Nichols, author of “Sex Trafficking in the United States” (2016), risk factors of identity-based oppression include age, gender, LGBTQ status, race and ethnicity, immigrant status, and intellectual disability. When pointing to weak social institutions, she relates research on the systems of family, child welfare which includes juvenile justice and foster care involvement, education, economic, and social safety nets as higher incidence recruitment entry points into human trafficking.

As a survivor of human trafficking, I want to find purpose from my experience and help others. Honestly, it’s a tough journey.

I am a graduate student on a college campus and considered a member of a hidden population. According to Dr. Kerri Kearney, associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University, the definition of hidden populations is still evolving through early research. However, members of hidden populations seem to have suffered from deep trauma, choose silence about their journeys, and have very limited people on campus who are knowledgeable or equipped to support them. With the utmost respect, consider the decades that war veterans suffered from PTSD before it was widely recognized and supported. They suffered for what they experienced.

I am fighting the remnants of my experience so I can finish a doctoral program. Neither professors nor peers understand the mental and emotional expenditure when PTSD is activated. At times, I can be in class and want to dart out the door so I can breathe and slow my racing thoughts and pounding heart. I don’t want to explain, I want to hide.

I have dreams like my peers, and I strongly desire to help others. Survivors who want to thrive, need to be provided tangible support. We deserve the opportunity to be more than perpetrators led us to believe. We are more than our traumatic experiences. While I would rather do almost anything other than feel the pain and vulnerability of exposing my lived experiences, being hidden doesn’t empower me, nor help other survivors, move toward thriving. Finding my voice is part of my healing and my right to reach for opportunities to flourish. It is my plea that you empower survivors to heal, too.

What can you do to support the recovery of a trafficked person? Encourage and believe in survivors. When survivors want to thrive, help them remember who they are, that their life is more than the accumulation of their traumas, and that their life has purpose. Help them find scholarships, peer support groups, and appropriate therapies. It only takes one person to believe in a victim to start the arduous journey of transforming their broken life from survivor to thriver.

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-737-3888.

Tifanie Lyn-Brumbaugh is a Ph.D. student in the Social Foundations of Education program at Oklahoma State University.

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Tifanie Lyn-Brumbaugh is a Ph.D. student in the Social Foundations of Education program at Oklahoma State University.

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