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Why Don’t Human Trafficking Victims Come Forward or Cooperate?

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

The impact of human trafficking on victims/survivors varies based on the type and duration of trafficking (act, means, purpose), victim age, gender, socio-cultural considerations, and other specifics of the situation. It can produce complex and lasting physical, emotional, and psychological effects on anyone involved.

World Health Organization (WHO) and Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) - Influences on Health and Well-Being at Various Stages of Trafficking
World Health Organization (WHO) and Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) - Influences on Health and Well-Being at Various Stages of Trafficking

A review of some of the many well documented reasons trafficking victims/survivors don’t come forward or provide accurate information on traffickers include:

  • Debt obligations (bondage) or perceived obligations (OSCE)

  • Do not identify as a victim (DHS)

  • Fear of law enforcement - Victims of trafficking often distrust police in their home countries and fear law enforcement agencies in general. Trafficking survivors are concerned that they will be treated as criminals, incarcerated or deported because they are sometimes forced to engage in illegal activities as a direct result of their victimization. If law enforcement does not properly screen suspected criminals, a victim could be prosecuted and convicted. A criminal record makes it difficult for survivors to move forward since they may be, among other things, prevented from renting an apartment, taking certain types of jobs, or receiving financial aid (DHS, HTS, UNODC)

  • Fear of reprisals against the victim or their family (OSCE)

  • Lack of access to technology (OSCE)

  • Lack of independent living skills - Many victims who escape a trafficking situation lack the education and resources needed to live independently. They may not understand laws in the country where they now reside or may not speak the language. They may have been trafficked at a young age and were unable to attend school or go to college. After being confined to the same job for a long period of time and not being allowed to learn new skills, victims can become dependent. When the time comes, they may have a hard time living on their own (TER)

  • Lack of potential for remedy or the perceived lack of alternatives (OSCE)

  • Lack of trust in those attempting to help (OSCE)

  • Language barriers - Victims may also be trafficked internationally, and therefore may not be able to engage due to a lack of linguistic capability or geographic and cultural familiarity (DHS, HTS)

  • Mental trauma - Traffickers forge strong trauma bonds with the individual(s) they are exploiting to create a sense of dependency and isolation. Because traffickers dehumanize and objectify their victims, victims’ innate sense of power, visibility, and dignity often become obscured. Traffickers also use coercive tactics and force to make their victims feel worthless and emotionally imprisoned. Constant monitoring and surveillance, and forging divisions between victims and their previous support networks (e.g., friends, family, community members), can make victims feel escape is impossible and they have nowhere to turn. As a result, victims can lose their sense of identity and security. Many survivors may end up experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), difficulty in relationships, depression, memory loss, anxiety, fear, guilt, insecurity, shame, cognitive impairment, suicide, and other severe forms of mental trauma. Often, there can be a type of Stockholm Syndrome - where due to unequal power, victims create a false emotional or psychological attachment to their controller. Child trafficking victims develop reactions that persist and affect their daily lives after being rescued, such as intense and ongoing emotional upset, depressive symptoms or anxiety, behavioral changes, difficulties with self-regulation, problems relating to others or forming attachments, regression or loss of previously acquired skills, attention and academic difficulties, nightmares, difficulty sleeping and eating, and physical symptoms, such as aches and pains. Older children may use drugs or alcohol, behave in risky ways, or engage in unhealthy sexual activity (DHS, DOS, HTS, NCTSN, TER, WHO)

  • Ostracism - Individuals who are being trafficked can quickly become isolated from friends, family, and other social circles leaving them unable to engage socially or reach out for help. This may be due to their personal feelings of guilt and shame or because they’ve relocated and now live far away from their community. Either way, victims can become isolated, withdrawn, and lose contact with most people. Individuals specifically trafficked for sex have described facing stigma and other negative responses during and after their trafficking experience, especially from friends and family members. Some individuals who return home or escape a trafficking situation may even be excluded from social groups due to a stigma they now face; they may be shunned by their family and friends and feel unloved and unwanted. Unfortunately, this isolation can make them vulnerable to being trafficked again or lead them to return to an abusive lifestyle (HTS, OSCW, TER, WHO)

  • Health/Physical trauma – For people who are trafficked, health effects are often cumulative, making it necessary to take account of each stage of the trafficking process, as depicted by the above conceptual model. Many victims are often exposed to harsh physical conditions, including excessive work or the use of force by their traffickers resulting in physical injuries. Those who have been sexually exploited are often abused by their traffickers and customers. They may be raped, beaten, and subjected to abuse over a long period of time. There is also a higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, infections, diabetes, cancer, and other illnesses. A lack of proper medical care allows these conditions to spread and worsen—often affecting an individual's health permanently. Victims of the many forms of forced labor may face a range of occupational health risks which vary by sector but can include poor ventilation and sanitation; extended hours; repetitive-motion activities; poor training in use of heavy or high-risk equipment; chemical hazards; lack of protective equipment; heat or cold extremes; and airborne and bacterial contaminants. Exposure to such risk factors can result in exhaustion, dehydration, repetitive-motion syndromes, heat stroke or stress, hypothermia, frostbite, accidental injuries, respiratory problems and skin infections. (HTS, TER, WHO)

  • Victim-support services that range from being merely ineffective, to being contrary to the wishes of the victim, such as detention in anti-human trafficking shelters, mandatory return to their country of origin or refusal of services due to lack of identification, such as passports or driver licenses (OSCE, WHO)


Some of the many insights for the anti-human trafficking community (AHTC) that can be drawn from the above effects, include:

  • Inform and educate the general public about the cumulative, lasting, overall health and other life-altering consequences associated with human trafficking in addition to the usual definitions, causes, and indicators

  • Focus efforts on human trafficking centers of gravity, e.g. victims coming out of jails, through airports and immigration services, locations where day labor is sought, agencies where government public assistance is provided, emergency rooms, primary health care clinics, trafficking corridors, etc

  • Develop separate trauma-informed strategies and protocols for each unique group of trafficking victims while being mindful of effects of indirect trauma (vicarious trauma - VT and secondary traumatic stress - STS) on the AHTC

  • Improve partnering between service providers, law enforcement, survivors and the private sector to reduce unnecessary duplication of efforts, promote information sharing, and enhance the AHTC’s collective efforts to prevent, disrupt, and reduce human trafficking and increase and expand survivors’ access to resources

Sources: Department of Homeland Security - DHS; Department of State - DOS; Human Trafficking Search - HTS; National Child Traumatic Stress Network - NCTSN; Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe - OSCE; Psychology Today - PT; The Exodus Road - TER; United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime - UNODC; World Health Organization - WHO

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