Social Dialogue Magazine
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Omozusi Mercy (MSW) Babcock University Department of Social Work & Human Services

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Adegbite Olanrewaju (MSW), Babcock University Department of Social Work & Human Services

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Eriadura Awobodu (BSW), Babcock University Department of Social Work & Human Services

The effect of human trafficking on the mental health of victims

Human trafficking is a widespread phenomenon in the world. It involves the use of force, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act and is often called “modern-slavery. It includes labor trafficking, such as hotel or farm labor, domestic servitude, and sex trafficking. This continues to be a key problem, both nationally and internationally. The co-morbidity of communicable and non-communicable diseases along with mental health issues among trafficked individuals make addressing human trafficking an urgent task. The existence of human trafficking is a result of greater societal problems which include childhood abuse and neglect, poverty, illiterate, homelessness etc. Social workers are taking the lead in efforts to reduce the number of human trafficking victims and help keep young people from falling prey to traffickers through awareness and intervention strategies.


According to the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) (2011), over the last 15 years the term human trafficking has been used to describe the activities involved when one person obtains or holds another person in compelled service. Trafficking provides an endless supply of human beings for use in every possible labor industry. This global problem affects every nation in the world, with the most vulnerable members of society being targeted as victims of trafficking. Many have been made vulnerable by poverty and conflict. Globalization and transnational migration trends continue to amplify economic disparities and increase the vulnerability of oppressed populations to different forms of human trafficking. Most victims of human trafficking are generally exploited for labor or sexual purposes.

Population at risk

All children under age 18 engaged in commercial sex acts are considered victims of trafficking. Smaller proportions are victims of organ removal or unethical adoption processes (Roby & Bergquist, 2014). Persons most vulnerable to human trafficking are the poor, marginalized, and the individuals seeking employment opportunities. Majority of human trafficking victims today are women and girls (United States Department of State, 2013). The feminization of poverty and gender-biased cultural norms that encourage the subjugation of women increase their vulnerability to human trafficking. Political activists and popular media have mostly focused on the sex trafficking of women and children (Alvarez & Alessi, 2012). Due to this narrow lens regarding human trafficking, men trafficked for labor are often overlooked and may not receive support (Alvarez & Alessi, 2012).

Prevalence of human trafficking

Worldwide, approximately 5.5 million victims of human trafficking are under the age of 18 (International Labour Office, 2013). Approximately 1.2 million children are trafficked annually worldwide (Blumhofer, Shah, Grodin, & Crosby, 2011). The United Nations on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted a general trend of increased child trafficking throughout the world, which was most prevalent in Africa (UNODC, 2012). Children who are refugees or internally displaced are vulnerable to trafficking (United States Department of State, 2013). The process of constant movement is another reason trafficking prevalence is so difficult to accurately assess. The main transit regions include Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) (an alliance of former Soviet Repiblics), and the industrialized nations. Finally, the primary destination countries are Italy, the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Greece, Turkey, and Thailand (Hodge & Lietz, 2007).

Mental health issues and trauma in victims of human trafficking

Common among all oppressors, whether controlling prisoners of war, intimates in domestic violence, or human trafficking, is their systematic, repetitive infliction of psychological trauma that is initially enforced with physical violence. Violence can take many forms such as hitting, grabbing and controlling or contorting the body, punching, stabbing, torture, destruction of personal property, pets, or harm to others, rape, beatings, being burned with whatever is available, or being cut and having salt poured into the wounds (Hodge & Lietz, 2007). Violence is used because it convinces the victim that the perpetrator is omnipotent and that resistance is futile, even dangerous (Aron, 2006).

After initial assault, merely the threat of harm to self or others is sufficient. However, control is amplified through other systematic means. Trauma and the terror of further pain is heightened by compromising the victim's physiological system, through long periods of sleep deprivation and forced use of alcohol and other drugs,’ through physical restraint such as chaining or locking up, and having food withheld’ (Shigekane, 2007). Thus through violence, intermittent reward, isolation, and enforced dependency, a trafficker creates a submissive and compliant prisoner. However, the final step in the psychological control of the victim is not completed until she has been forced to violate her own moral principles and to betray basic human attachments. Shame and embarrassment are the legacy of most victim survivors (Aron, 2006).

Psychologically speaking, the most compelling and destructive of all coercive techniques is when a victim comes to loathe herself. When the victim under duress participates in the sacrifice of others, she is truly broken, once they have achieved this, the trafficker has complete control.

Even though survivors may eventually be free from physical control of their captors, the mental health problems from their terror and experience continue to create a prison of fear. Most common is post-traumatic stress disorder, accompanying suicidal ideation, almost always serious depression, underlined with anxiety and chronic fear (Barrows & Finger, 2008). Additionally mental health symptoms may also include or create co- morbid conditions from substance and alcohol abuse and dissociative disorders (Erin, 2009). The mental health disorders of human trafficking victims may be similar to those that have lived in an active war zone or experienced torture (Williamson, Dutch, & Clawson, 2008). These health consequences indicate the life- altering cost to victims of human trafficking.

Along with manifestations of mental health symptoms are physical health issues as well although systematic documentation of specific health problems is lacking (Barrows & Finger, 2008). The following are some examples of general health issues: Infectious diseases such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and AIDS; Noninfectious diseases; Heat stroke or exhaustion; Cancer; Musculosketetal trauma from awkward posture. It’s reported that victims are often forced to endure severe violence on a regular basis.

Case scenarios of victims of human trafficking (live interview)

I was taken from Nigeria to Italy, after some months I was able to escape and here is my story of pain and agony, I was taken to Italy for prostitution, my mistress told me that I must prostitute to pay her 65,000 euro, which is the money I am expected to pay her before I can be free.

I was a victim of human trafficking that was brought back home by NAPTIP (National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons). I left Nigeria to go to Libya. I was taken to Agadez then, to be taken to Libya. We were 160 and like sardines in a boat, the boat capsized and only four of us survived. The road is very risky, nobody should venture on such journey (96.9 Speed FM Benin City).

Social Work role

To assist victims of human trafficking along the path to recovery multidisciplinary efforts are required. Social workers can play an important role in many of the victims' efforts to recover from the trauma of trafficking and to have a better life. Since Social Workers are trained to work in a variety of settings including but not limited to inpatient mental health facilities, community mental health centers, psychiatric hospitals etc. Approaches that can be used by social workers in their work with victims of human trafficking include: intervention in crises, psychological support, assistance with state authorities, assistance finding the appropriate accommodation, accompanying in the judicial processes, counseling services for the returnees, information and training, information and counseling for family members. Social workers should be involved in prevention programming to minimize the risk factors that increase the probability of trafficking activity.

Preventive measures

Services to victims of human trafficking

The practice of social workers with clients can be divided into three different levels: micro, mezzo, and macro.

Micro level is the most common practice and happens directly with an individual client or family to deal with their problems. It includes: helping individuals to find appropriate housing, health care, and social services; family therapy and individual counseling; treatment of people suffering from a mental health condition or substance abuse problem. Mezzo level happens on an intermediate scale, involving neighborhoods, institutions or other smaller groups. Social workers can work together with non governmental agencies (NGO) in rehabilitating of victims of human trafficking.

Macro level is interventions that can be provided on a large scale that affects entire communities and systems of care. Examples include lobbying to change a law, organizing a state-wide activist group or advocating for large-scale social policy change. Macro social work practice empowers human trafficking victims by involving them in systemic change. Social workers and health professionals can advocate for legislation that gives stiffer penalties to traffickers and purchasers of sex.


It is essential to address the factors responsible for human trafficking for example childhood abuse and neglect, poverty, lack of educational opportunity, addiction, mental illness, homelessness and war. Creating policies which address the societal conditions that support global labor exploitation in all its forms. Human traffickers should also be arrested and prosecuted.


Alvarez, M. B., & Alessi, E. J. (2012). Human trafficking is more than sex trafficking and prostitution: Implications for social work.
Affilia: Journal of Women & Social 27(2), 142–152. doi:10.1177/0886109912443763 Work, Barrows, J., & Finger, R. (2008). Human Trafficking and the Healthcare Professional, MED. Journal. 521, 523, available at (last visited April 2nd, 2017).
Blumhofer, R., Shah, N., Grodin, M., & Crosby, S. (2011). Clinical issues in caring for former chattel slaves. Journal of Immigrant & Minority Health, 13(2),323–332. doi:10.1007/s10903-008-9217-4
Erin, W (2009). National symposium on the health needs of human trafficking victims (U.S. Dept of Health and Human Serv. 2009), available at (last visited June 14, 2017).
Hodge, D. R., & Lietz, C. A. (2007). The international sexual trafficking of women and children. A review of the literature. Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, 22(2), 163–174
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Shigekane, R. (2007). Rehabilitation and Community Integration of Trafficking Survivors in the United States, 29 HUM. RTS. Q. 112, 116, available at (last visited October 10, 2017). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2012). Global report on trafficking in persons 2012. Retrieved January, 2019, from United States Department of State. (2013). Trafficking in persons report. Retrieved September 21, 2018, from . United States Department of State. (2011). Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2011. Williamson, E., Dutch, N. M., & Clawson, H. J. (2008). Evidence-based mental health treatment for victims of human trafficking. Washington, DC: Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved July 10th, 2018, from