Social Work and Assisting Migrant Victims of Sex Trafficking

The purpose of my paper is to explore the critical situation of immigrant women and girls who are the victims of human trafficking which often transitions into sex trafficking along the United States-Mexico border. There have been many reports both in print and online media regarding the dire situation of women and girls attempting to flee gang violence in Central America and seeking new and better lives in the United States. The trauma of these experiences can significantly impair their ability navigate the already difficult road of immigration.

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Social workers can be a crucial component in getting this population the help they need through advocacy within the governmental bureaucracy as well as directly assisting them in their recovery by helping them gain coping skills, confidence, and resilience through the use of strengths perspective theory.

Often, vulnerable migrant women and girls accept the help of strangers once reaching the United States. It is widely reported in news, documentaries, blogs and other informal sources that many of these strangers end up kidnapping these women and girls and selling them to people for the purposes of sex trafficking. These women and girls are forced to allow men to have sex with them (rape) and the people who forced them to have sex are paid for providing the women and girls. Sex trafficking is defined by the Department of Homeland Security as “modern day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” (citation needed) The website goes on to indicate that every year millions of men women and children are trafficked in countries around the world including the United States, and it is estimated that human trafficking generates many billions of dollars of profit per year, second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable form of transnational crime.” (www.dhs.gov/bluecampaign/what-human-trafficking ) In “”Right Here is the Gateway”: Mobility, Sex Work Entry and HIV Risk Along the Mexico-US Border,” the authors indicate “many migrate voluntarily for sex work or practice survival sex; others are trafficked for sexual exploitation.” (page needed) They went on to indicate that female migrants often experience increased health related problems, including violence, poor reproductive health, and risk of HIV and sexually transmitted infections. (Kendall and Pelcastre, 2010, Adanu and Johnson, 2009; Goldenberg, et al., 2012b; Platt et al., 2012). Social workers can assist these women in many ways. Social workers in the United States have access to services that clients can be referred to. Navigating the various programs and groups that can provide help can be very confusing and intimidating, especially for those who speak little or no English. Social workers can provide a powerful service to these women and girls with referrals to safe houses, shelters, mental health providers, and agencies that help immigrants with immigration issues.

Even when social workers find success in meeting clients’ basic needs of a safe shelter, food and medical care, the trauma experienced by these women and girls requires significant mental health assistance. In the article “Human Trafficking and Sex Work: Foundational Social-Work Principles,” the author speaks about the importance of mental health services, in the form of counseling, are crucial for survivors of sex trafficking. It indicates the important role of the counselor and “asks the counselor to cultivate respect for her client and acceptance that her client’s story about her own life is authoritative.” (DeBoise, Crystal, 2014 pg. 230) It is so important that service providers, including social workers, believe the accounts of survivors. Survivors need to know and feel that people who claim to want to help them better their lives also believe them and are invested in helping them seek justice and healing. DeBoise goes on to indicate that being nonjudgmental and objective when working with survivors of human trafficking is also essential. Deboise states “we have to be vigilant about not blaming victims for the difficult situations they are in.” (Meridians 12:1) Social workers would need to employ similar skills when working with survivors. Victim blaming, belittling or judging a client harshly will likely lead to the client not wanting to come back for help, and viewing the social worker as just another person who wants to harm them. It is important that social workers have an open mind when assisting clients and not to prejudge a client before they have heard their story and attempted to empathize with them. Being able to reveal the ways in which you have been victimized and possibly speaking about sexually transmitted diseases, requires a high level of trust between the client and service provider. While mental health professionals can provide much-needed assistance, social workers can also play a crucial role directly in helping this population. Recognizing that “strengths are sometimes forged in the fires of trauma, sickness, abuse, and oppression, (Dennis Saleeby, 1995) employing a strengths perspective can be an effective tool in doing so. The goal of fostering resilience in social workers’ clients with traumatic life events is discussed. Resilience is defined as “the factors and processes enabling sustained competent functioning even in the event of major life stressors, (Norman, 2000, pg. 3) Developing resilience requires helping the client acquire and grow certain crucial abilities. The first of these is self-efficacy. It is “a positive perception of one’s ability to perform required life’s tasks. (Norman, pg. 5) Helping the client to believe they can overcome their obstacles is an important step in them actually doing so. Another important strengths perspective tool is making sure the client has a realistic appraisal of the environment. The author notes that this is similar to a key tenant of Alcoholics Anonymous focusing only on what can be changed and not on what cannot.

A third strengths perspective factor to develop reliance is social problem solving skills. Clients can feel overwhelmed at times with what they have to deal with. Social workers can play a significant role in helping them gain the confidence needed to tackle the problems they face by assisting them in gaining understanding and competence handling these problems in a supportive and nurturing environment. But “the single most important factor promoting resiliency, not only in children and adolescents, but also in adults of all ages, is having a positive, caring relationship with another person.” (Norman, pg. 8) It is important for the social worker to work if at all possible to reunite clients with family members they may have become separated from so that they can have the support they need to acquire resiliency. It is not just the humane thing to do, it is also crucial to enabling the client’s success. Through these strengths perspective strategies social workers can increase the likelihood of a successful outcome for their clients.

Women and girls in these horrible situations have been victims of crimes. To give them a sense of justice it is important if at all possible that social workers work with law enforcement in actively seeking out and arresting those who are found to be forcing these women into sex trafficking. Often these women and girls are fleeing violence and may not have had the time or resources to apply for proper permission to enter the country— this is why asylum for women fleeing violence is so important. Human traffickers can take advantage of a woman if they know she is in the country illegally and likely will not seek the help of law enforcement for fear of being deported. Social workers working along with law enforcement and immigration officials in helping to create a safe space for immigrant women to report these crimes without fear of being deported will help remove the power that many traffickers have over their victims.

Another way in which social workers can assist clients more broadly is by influencing policies within the government in a way that protects and helps survivors. The authors indicate that “policies to protect migrant and public health will be most effective if they address the multiple phases of the migratory process, including pre-departure, travel, destination, interception, and return. Health interventions exist at each stage.” (Zimmerman, Cathy; Kiss, Ligia; Hossain, Mazeda; “Migration and Health: A Framework for 21 st Century Policy-Making”). Influencing policy can come by simply attending city council meetings, contacting your state and federal representatives and letting them know what needs you are seeing from your clients, first hand. Many times politicians are heavily influenced by people telling them what is going on because they are not there to see it from themselves.

A social worker has the power to not only tell the politician what is going on, but to also show them real statistics of what they are seeing from clients, as they are offering services to help better the client’s life. With this information, the social worker may be able to influence a politician to pass laws that will make it easier to offer services to a person escaping the life of sex trafficking. In this particular political climate where migrants are being held in detention after presenting themselves at the border, no matter their reasons, the author’s notations on “return phase” as part of a service plan is crucial. The author indicates, “the return phase is when individuals go back to their place of origin, either temporarily or permanently.” They go on to say, “People who return after suffering serious abuse, such as trafficked persons or war affected refugees, may sustain high levels of distress or psychiatric morbidity. Practices related to the repatriation of individuals with life threatening conditions do not always fully adhere to human rights principles and can put returnees at risk of long term morbidity or mortality.” (“Migration and Health: A Framework for 21 st Century Policy-Making”, 4) The importance of influencing policy by engaging our politicians and making sure they know what is going on is so important to help people hopefully not have to suffer these horrible consequences.

Human sex trafficking is a consequence of severe social and economic hardship that its victims are desperately trying to escape. These women and girls have suffered enormously at home, on their journey, and once they arrive here. The challenges social workers face with this population are extremely difficult. But by working with politicians, law enforcement, mental health providers, and with the client directly using strengths perspective theory, healing, restoration, and hope can take hold and grow for a group of people who profoundly need it.

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