A quick internet search for human trafficking brings up the same images: ropes, chains, girls behind bars, often sexualized and branded with bar codes. It’s about creating shock value in a sector where sensationalization is all too common.
Yet human trafficking and forced labor largely doesn’t look like this — and in fact such imagery is harmful in that it creates an expectation that one can identify modern slavery by relying on hyper-sensational, dramatic imagery. This has both ramifications for victims in self-identification and the authorities who are tasked with anti-trafficking investigations.
Freedom United’s own Joanna Ewart-James writes in Thomson Reuters Foundation:
Whilst sadly some cases do fit such [dramatic] imagery, modern slavery more often uses invisible chains of coercion. Such misrepresentation is problematic because it can prevent victims from self-identifying their own experience as a case of extreme exploitation.
Rebecca Bender, a survivor of trafficking from the US, explains that sensationalism in public communications can undermine survivors’ credibility. Frontline officials may fail to recognise more common experiences of trafficking and modern slavery.
This is supported by an example given in a recent review of the UK police where a victim was returned to a property from where she was arrested, despite expressing a fear of a man there, only to realise too late that she might be a victim of human trafficking.
Additionally, even the media is sometimes guilty of not getting prior informed consent from survivors in publishing their stories — leading to secondary victimization and stigmatization. “This is an issue particularly for children, because of their inherent vulnerability and reliance on their peers’ opinions for their own self-confidence,” notes Ewart-James.
In the hope of changing how human trafficking is represented and discussed, Freedom United has launched a new campaign called “My Story, My Dignity.” It calls on companies, institutions, and others in the anti-trafficking sector to be responsible and respectful in how they tell stories about trafficking. Ending modern slavery requires survivors to be humanized and given the space to lead in this movement — “not [be] boiled down to representations of pain and cruelty.”