Season 1, Episode 8: The Forgotten 45% - Discussing Male Victims of Trafficking

Episode

You’re listening to Episode 8 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel. This episode will discuss the issue of ignoring male victims of trafficking and will examine the story of a man trafficked to Scotland.

I’m going to start off with a little disclaimer: I’m at home right now for Thanksgiving break, so I’m not recording this episode in a soundproof studio as usual. If you hear any ambient noises, that’s just the sounds of my everyday life. And now, here’s episode 8.

Of the seven previous episodes, five of them have told the stories of specific survivors. They were all victims of different kinds of trafficking, like forced marriage and forced sex and domestic work. One thing all of these stories had in common, however, was that all of the victims were female, and the traffickers were male. If you only listen to these episodes, then it could lead to you believe that trafficking victims are always women and girls. But this belief is dangerous because it ignores male victims of trafficking.

Why do we often forget about the male victims of trafficking or only associate victimhood with women? Well, the most widely known form of trafficking is sex trafficking, of which men and boys make up only about 2% of the victims, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). This means that whenever we see sex trafficking portrayed in the media, like in the popular movie Taken, we’re seeing female victims. This not only reinforces our belief that only women are victims of sex trafficking, it also promotes the idea that sex trafficking is the only form of human trafficking. It becomes a cycle of incorrect and incomplete awareness on the issue: we usually talk about sex trafficking, so we focus on the 98% of women and forget the 2% of male victims. We don’t notice this 2%, so the media doesn’t cover them. The media doesn’t talk about them, so we don’t think that they exist. We don’t think they exist, so we overlook them.

But when it comes to all forms of human trafficking, male victims make up much more than 2%. The ILO reports that men and boys make up about 42% of victims in state-imposed slavery, and 60%, the majority, in private economic slavery. When calculating all of these statistics together, the ILO estimates that men and boys make up about 45% of all trafficking victims. That means that men and women are almost equally likely to be a victim of some form of human trafficking.

To learn more about that 45%, let’s look at a story CNN published on Abdul Azad. Azad was a chef from Bangladesh who saw an advertisement that promised $22,500 a year for working as a chef at a hotel in Scotland. However, to get to the UK, Azad first had to have a visa. His boss paid for his visa. This may seem like a generous act, but when it comes to trafficking situations, it’s anything but. Azad’s boss paid for his visa because he wanted to leverage himself over Azad. If he could put Azad in debt right from the start, then he could keep Azad for as long as he wanted until Azad paid off his debt. But of course, the boss would make it impossibly hard for Azad to pay this debt, because like most labor trafficking situations, he would add more and more debt as time went on. It’s like trying to add a pile of dirt back to a six-foot deep hole, only to have someone dig another two feet.

And this is exactly what happened. Not only was Azad indebted to his boss, he was not given the amenities promised in the advertisement. These false promises are also very common in labor trafficking cases. Instead of staying on track to make $22,500 a year, Azad was told he would only make $125 a week. And, as it turns out, he wasn’t even paid that much. What’s more, Azad wasn’t just doing the chef work as he had imagined. He was also cleaning rooms, tending to the gardens and clearing out the snow when needed. Sometimes, he and his coworkers would work for 22 hours a day. He was doing more work than he had bargained for, and being paid less than he had been promised.

Once Azad and his coworkers from Bangladesh figured out what was happening to them, they felt it was too late. They were already indebted to their boss because of their visa fees, and they were afraid that if they tried to seek help, their boss would confiscate their documents and make their work illegal. Without their documents, law enforcement would likely view them as undocumented workers and deport them without looking into the nuances of their case. This, again, is another common feature of labor trafficking. Traffickers often possess or confiscate workers’ documents, such as their visas and passports, so that they cannot leave the country. If they try, they will have to go through a legal system that is often not designed to help victims of trafficking. By trying to improve their situation, Azad and the other men were tricked into a trafficking situation. By trying to get out of this situation, they could end up harming themselves more than helping.

This story has hints of a silver lining. Azad and three other men were able to get some help from a local NGO for migrant workers. Their boss is now in jail. However, all of them still face deportation, and while they can apply for asylum to stay in the UK, there is no guarantee that their application will be approved.

There’s another aspect of this story that at first seems shocking: there were about eight other coworkers from Bangladesh that did not seek out any legal help like Azad. Part of the reason could be that they were afraid of deportation, a very real threat that Azad and the other men faced after they sought help. So, when we think of all of the problems that could arise from seeking help, suddenly it’s not so shocking that eight men continued on in their trafficking circumstances. But legal repercussions aren’t the only reasons some people stay. Trauma bonding, which we learned about in the first and third episodes, can explain why some victims stay. In this case, however, it doesn’t seem to be the case that the men felt emotionally attached to their boss. Instead, the fact that they are men likely played a role in their decision to stay.

What does being a man have to do with this? This all ties back to the stereotype that only women are victims of trafficking. Because men are not usually labeled as the victim in a trafficking situation, they can feel a sense of shame when they do end up in this position. That is, if they even recognize themselves as victims of trafficking in the first place. An article from Reuters points out that men are less likely to recognize themselves as a victim of trafficking. They’ll reason that it’s just a bad work experience, or something that they just have to get through, just like every other man. To admit that they’re a victim would be a blow to their self-esteem. This way of thinking, while understandable, only keeps men in trafficking situations longer and puts them at a higher risk for mental and physical health issues. We need to remove the stigma of being a male victim of trafficking so that they can feel comfortable with coming forward and receiving the support that they need.

If you’re interested in supporting male survivors of trafficking, a link to a resource page will be added in our shownotes. While a lot of these resources are targeted toward male survivors of sex trafficking, there are other opportunities open to survivors of any form of trafficking.

We need to talk about male victims of trafficking more often to raise awareness about their plight and to remove the stigma associated with being a male victim. In cases of human trafficking, the men aren’t always the bad guys like in the movie Taken. Sometimes they’re the Azads -- men who just wanted a shot at a better life for themselves and their families but were tricked or coerced into a life they never bargained for. Human trafficking isn’t just a women’s issue; it’s an issue that affects millions of men and boys worldwide. We need to focus on helping male victims and survivors of trafficking. They cannot afford to be looked over any longer.

This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on December 10th at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at thetraffickingdispatch.com, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at thetraffickingdispatch@gmail.com. Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.

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