When we think of survivors of human trafficking, we don’t often think about the after. We celebrate their freedom without giving much thought to the barriers they will have to overcome to reintegrate into society. We get stuck on the concept of “rescue” and when the “rescue” is the focus, survivors get left behind.
Because the truth is, it’s not a “rescue” if you don’t also ensure a survivor’s financial security, provide access to safe housing, and create a comprehensive trauma treatment plan. It is not a “rescue” if you don’t also help them network with peers to form healthy relationships and provide goal-planning services so they can see a great future ahead of them. In order for a survivor to truly be “rescued,” support services must go beyond crisis management and provide them with resources and avenues to live an empowered life free from exploitation.
Aftercare provisions matter. The precision and depth of care offered to survivors leaving the life determines whether a survivor will be able to heal from their trafficking experience or if they will face avoidable barriers with re-integration and fall victim to recidivism.
Recidivism refers to the likelihood that a survivor will be re-trafficked or return to the commercial sex industry after finding freedom. Many survivors remain incredibly vulnerable to re-exploitation and according to Kristi Wells of the Safe House Project, 80% of survivors return to the commercial sex industry at some point due to lack of sufficient resources and support.
If we want to bear witness to the end of human trafficking in our lifetime, we can’t only be concerned with survivors’ escape and after, but also with what happens after aftercare. “Freeing” survivors of trafficking is not enough. When survivors are afforded adequate and comprehensive support services, life can begin again. Because that is what exiting exploitation is – the beginning. After months or years of abuse and isolation, the healing road for survivors is complicated and extensive and tender. Those exiting the life need safe, broad, trauma-based, and thorough support systems in order to succeed – and the care should be long-term.
Safe homes are critical for stabilization, but walking with a survivor in their healing journey doesn’t end when they leave the program. If survivors are not provided with what they need to stay free from exploitation, we create a revolving door, cultivating recidivism and discouraging women who make the daring decision to trust and the dangerous decision to leave their traffickers.
Most street-level practitioners report that without care, survivors of trafficking have a 100% recidivism rate, but studies show that just one year of care can cut this rate to 50%. This statistic shifts when those exiting the life have accessible resources, the autonomy of choice, and equitable opportunities; when freedom truly becomes a choice and they are empowered in lasting ways to leave the life and step into a new one.
Freedom is more than the absence of trafficking. Restoration is more than just providing basic needs and helping survivors get back on their feet. It is holistic and comprehensive. It is a deep dive into what each survivor envisions for their future, mapping a plan, and then walking alongside them every step of the way.
To keep survivors on a path of restoration and to lower recidivism rates, we must invest in long-term trauma care, social empowerment, and an enduring commitment to help them create sustainable plans for the future. When long-term support for reintegration is viewed as a critical aspect of measures aimed at preventing re-trafficking, promoting resilience, and restoring survivors’ physical, psychological, economic, and social well-being after trafficking, life can begin again with lasting freedom as a choice.