Mental Health Compromised At All Stages Of Human Trafficking

SAFMH News Room

January marks Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

According to anti-human trafficking organisation A21, human trafficking is one of the most horrific injustices the world has ever seen. This year, the focus is on the ‘Power of Awareness’ and as SAFMH we want to lend our voices to not only create awareness about human-trafficking in South Africa, but importantly, to call to an end to what can be seen as modern-day slavery.

Human Trafficking is a crime against humanity. It involves the illegal trade of human beings. It refers to the recruitment, control, and use of people for their bodies and for their labour. This poses a serious threat to security and global health, including mental health.

Many victims of human trafficking endure countless violations, including sexual, physical and psychological abuse. Women and girls may be exposed to unwanted pregnancy after unsafe and/or forced sexual practices during trafficking. Victims of trafficking usually experience social exclusion and financial and labour-exploitive conditions. Consequently, many survivors of trafficking have mental health problems, specifically symptoms of anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In a 2018 study of 1,387 survivors who were trafficked in Ethiopia, the prevalence of symptoms of anxiety was estimated at 51.9%, PTSD was estimated at 34.5% and depression at 58.3%. While we do not have robust data regarding the mental health outcomes of people who are trafficked in South Africa, we have no reason to believe these numbers would be vastly different.

Human-trafficking in South Africa is a reality and is annually affirmed by the Trafficking-in-Persons (TIP) reports. Available statistics from August 2015 to December 2017 suggest 2,132 cases of human trafficking were recorded by The South African Police Service (SAPS). Furthermore, over a 15-year period (2000 – 2015), 3,957 children and 23,803 adults were recorded as unaccounted for and missing. These figures are most likely a conservative reflection of the extent of South Africa’s human trafficking problem as available robust data sources are difficult to come by. Cornel Viljoen, A21 South Africa’s Prevention and Awareness Coordinator, confirms this and reports dealing with cases on a daily basis.

Viljoen says that people around the world are groomed to be trafficked almost exclusively by exploiting an existing vulnerability in their life. These vulnerabilities are often not the fault of the person in question, but must be recognised as they can make someone more at risk of being groomed to be trafficked. Viljoen says:

“Traffickers abuse people’s vulnerabilities and subsequently exploit them so that human trafficking can occur. “ 

In South Africa, the legislation governing the crime of human trafficking is called The Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act, no 7 of 2013 (“the PACOTIP Act”).  This legislation defines the abuse of vulnerability as

‘…any abuse that leads a person to believe that he or she has no reasonable alternative but to submit to exploitation, and includes but is not limited to, taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of that person…’

The legislation goes on to list vulnerabilities such as: a person entering or remaining in South Africa illegally; pregnancy; disability; substance addiction; being a child; social circumstances or economic circumstances.

So, what does this vulnerability look like in day-to-day life?

To explain, Viljoen uses the example of “being a child”. Children are inherently vulnerable simply because they are children. Furthermore, where a child is left unsupervised in their community or does not have a positive parental figure in their life, their vulnerability to being exploited by traffickers is compounded. Children are generally also less aware of the dangers of trusting strangers and/or less likely to tell a responsible adult if they are concerned about something. Traffickers can thus lure children through providing friendship and gifts to build a relationship of trust. Once this relationship has been built, traffickers are often more successful in exploiting that child for sexual or labour services.

What about an individual living in poverty and desperate for a better future? Traffickers have been known to exploit individuals through false job advertisements, which can often seem ‘too good to be true’. For example, promised that any and all fees are paid for, the job requires little to no experience and the wages are lucrative.  When an individual applies for the job, traffickers can lead that individual to a place where they are subsequently exploited or into doing work different to that which was advertised. This is especially pertinent in South Africa where our unemployment rate hit a devastating new record high of 34.9% last year.

It is important to note that while both men and women can be trafficked, statistically, more females are recorded as being victims. In South Africa, the ‘loverboy’ method or ‘blesser/blessee’ dynamic is unfortunately all too common. Here, usually older male traffickers prey on younger women by spending time building the relationship and lavishing the often-young woman with gifts and attention. Once trust is built, many are successful at exploiting the woman, often for sexual services.

The relationship between trauma and human trafficking 

Trauma is understood as the emotional response to a devastating event or series of events. people who have been trafficked are likely to experience severe and enduring trauma. Trauma will be expressed differently by each person – this can range from intense expressions of anger or fear to a lack of emotion or a flat affect. Research indicates that events like childhood abuse, growing up in abject poverty, or experiencing war and unrest are some of the contributing risk factors for a person being trafficked. These upstream determinants, often traumatic in nature, can begin early in life and continue over the years even before a person is trafficked.

Some people who have been trafficked may have experienced multiple traumas and/or neglect, often beginning early in life and continuing over the years even before they are trafficked. Examples of this include childhood abuse, abject poverty, civil war, natural disasters or domestic abuse. Trauma experienced over the life course may put someone at risk of being exploited.

Viljoen warns that traffickers will exploit these prior traumas through a number of methods. It’s crucial that people are aware of the types of situations traffickers take advantage of and how they do so, to enable people to protect themselves in the best way possible.

Sometimes research, the media, or survivors will refer the phrase “trauma-bonding” when discussing trafficking and trauma. This is a counter-intuitive phenomenon in which a victim bonds and develops a strong emotional attachment and/or positive feelings towards their abuser or trafficker. These bonds can affect a person’s ability to:

  • Identify their own victimisation
  • Cooperate with law-enforcement of helping professionals
  • Refrain from going back into the life they have once lived

Watch this webinar on “Understanding Trauma Bonds Between traffickers and Their Victims” by Amanda Gopal from 2020 to learn more.

Supporting a person who has been trafficked (potentially faced prior traumatic events) and/or experienced trauma-bonding requires sensitivity and a trauma-informed perspective.  The Centre for Disease Control emphasises that care should be centered on survivors regaining autonomy and agency. This means that survivors must be active collaborators in their treatment process. Services must be provided consistently, with full transparency so as to not further exacerbate any distrustfulness.

Importantly, survivors must relearn how to be safe in their own bodies again. Breath work, mindfulness exercises and guided meditation, supplemented with talk therapy are some effective ways to achieve this.

Finally, ensuring access to holistic, wrap-around care is essential. This means working with survivors to meet not only their psychological needs, but their socioeconomic and legal needs too. This is an essential part of restoring a survivor’s sense of power, proficiency, and purpose.

You can find more resources about human trafficking by clicking here. There are guides for parents on how to speak about human trafficking with your child, visual resources designed to help children with low literacy learn more about human trafficking, and virtual learning opportunities about how to educate yourself and others to prevent human trafficking.


It’s important to know that there is nothing shameful about being a victim of human trafficking and help is available.

The South African Human Trafficking Hotline is 0800 222 777 or email for help.

Image by Roma Kaiuk on Unsplash

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