A new study says victims of human trafficking suffer severe mental and physical health problems. Some estimates say at least 18-million men women and children worldwide are considered modern day slaves.
The study published in The Lancet Global Health medical journal is the largest ever done on the mental and physical health of trafficking victims. It’s a joint effort by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the International Organization for Migration.
The findings focus on exploitation in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. But the people trafficked also included those from Burma and Laos. More than one-thousand people were interviewed. They had either escaped or were rescued from traffickers just weeks before the interviews.
Dr. Ligia Kiss, lecturer of social epidemiology at the London School and the study’s lead author, said, “The people we interviewed were working in the different sectors. We have a large proportion in sex work and fishing and factory work. But we also interviewed people working in agriculture, begging, domestic workers and construction, in home business and restaurants and hospitality and working as street sellers and, finally, trafficked as wives.”
While its estimated 18-million people are trafficking victims, the study says the “hidden nature of trafficking and the difficulties in defining it make estimates uncertain.”
“There is so little data on behalf of trafficked people. And we feel that assistance that is provided to them needs to be better informed to the needs of this population,” she said.
Dr. Kiss said the survey of trafficking victims found they were highly traumatized. The study looked for signs of depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
“I found that a high proportion of our sample reported symptoms associated with these three conditions. For example, almost 60 percent of participants reported symptoms of depression. We had also high levels of post traumatic stress disorder and almost half of the sample reporting anxiety. Also, it caught our attention that one in six participants reported having thoughts of ending their lives in the four weeks prior to the interview. And one in 20 actually tried to kill themselves in the four weeks before the interviews,” Kiss said.
She described some of what the trafficking victims endured.
“We know that they were living in very harsh conditions. Living and sleeping in overcrowded rooms; sleeping in dangerous conditions; having no actual sleep; having poor basic hygiene; not having adequate water to drink; having insufficient food to eat; (having) no clean clothing items and having been over exposed to rains.”
And then there’s the physical abuse.
“We had very high levels of violence reported, as well. We had almost half of the sample reporting physical or sexual violence, or both of them. Almost half the men reported physical violence. And 44 percent of the adult women interviewed reported sexual violence. Among children these numbers are very high, as well, with 36 percent of children reporting either physical or sexual violence or both,” she said.
Kiss said few received medical care for their injuries, except for such things as broken bones or loss of a body part.
Researchers also asked how they became victims of traffickers.
“So, we asked about abduction. We found that it was the minority of our sample that reported being abducted. The majority of people have situations at home that they’re trying to improve – sometimes [a] family member, who is ill. They need a better job, better financial conditions for their family. And that’s why they decided to migrate,” she said.
It’s during that migration – when encountering language, cultural and financial barriers --that they may fall victim to traffickers.
Dr. Kiss said, “There is a huge need to invest in prevention measures.” One reason is that after the trafficking victims have been freed, they return home to the same conditions that caused them to migrate in the first place. She says that puts them at risk of being trafficked yet again.
The study recommends greater government regulation, the enforcement of stringent heath and safety standards and frequent inspections of labor sectors that are susceptible to human trafficking.
While the study focused on Southeast Asia, human trafficking occurs in many other places around the world.