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Victim focus in traffic fight

Florrie Burke, a US consultant on human trafficking, said many of the difficulties NGOs in the US and India face are the same, funding being the principal one. In the US too, the number of successful prosecutions is not very high, as trafficking is a difficult crime to prove.

That said, there are many differences, which emerged as she spoke at the American Center on Friday with NGOs working on trafficking.

Burke, who is a founding member and chair emeritus of Freedom Network, a coalition of anti-human trafficking service organisations and advocates in the US, spoke about the collaborative model adopted in her country in handling human trafficking cases, in which law enforcement authorities, the prosecution, NGOs, which Burke represents, immigration authorities and labour department officials work together.

Burke, who has worked with victims of trauma and torture for over 30 years, was in dialogue with several NGOs working with trafficking in Calcutta and Bengal.

In the US, trafficking is mostly an immigration-centred experience.

What Burke particularly advocates is the “victim-centred” approach. “The victim,” she said, “is the most important evidence of trafficking.” But she is often traumatised by the experience. That is something that is forgotten.

After a girl is rescued, she may be further traumatised by blunt questioning. Florrie said that an insistence on getting the “facts” of her experience may be problematic. She may have given different accounts to different people, as told by the people who got her into the US, and those stories need not be revisited, certainly not in detail.

In the US, the various agencies working on a case together share only the information that is required.

The idea, said Florrie, is to make the victim, or in case the word “victim” has a negative ring, the survivor, overcome her trauma and stop looking at herself as a trafficked person. “She should feel that she is a human being, just a human being.”

It is a difficult process, because of many factors. Often the victim doesn’t want to be rescued, though she may be in an alien home in an alien country, underpaid, or not paid, her documents taken away, tortured perhaps, yet she doesn’t want to venture into the more unfamiliar outside world. The US gives the survivor the right to choose whether she wants to stay back or return to her own country. In either case, her new, though free home is far less glamorous than the beautiful apartment of her otherwise not-so-beautiful employers.

In that case, it is Burke and activists like her to work hard to keep the morale up of survivors. That is a challenge.

So is finding work for a survivor. Especially if they are not “low-skilled”. Burke has been working with large groups of educated Indian men who had been smuggled into the US illegally, without their knowledge. In trafficking, the spotlight is on girls and women. But men and boys also are trafficked in significant numbers, Burke reminded.

The discussion threw up some sharp contrasts with the Indian situation, where the approach certainly does not put the victim first.

In India, law enforcement agencies often do not consider trafficking a priority and NGOs have to step in and play roles that in the US state agencies do. NGOs also pointed out that repatriation of trafficked persons, to Bangladesh, to Nepal, is a slow, difficult process.

After usually a long wait in a home, they in reality have no choice but to go back to their own country even if they want to stay in India. The process of repatriation can be traumatising, as the border security forces on both borders can be insensitive, even sexually harassing. One activist said she was witness to a family, each of its members bearing a number, being split and sent through several different borders back to Bangladesh.

Later, Burke spoke on the role of media and legal service providers in trafficking.

On Thursday, Burke had conducted a workshop with policemen in Calcutta, where she said the audience was very receptive, but not one of them had dealt with a trafficking case.