Culture is the way individuals learn to interpret, give meaning to, and function in the world based on the shared values, beliefs, history, traditions, standards, language, behavioral norms, and communication styles of the communities with which they identify. Culture can have an enormous, though often unacknowledged, influence on the success of criminal investigations and social service interventions for survivors of trafficking. Perceptions of law enforcement, beliefs about fate and destiny, communication differences, stereotypes of the “other,” differing concepts of power and authority, of time, and of gender roles all sway our interpretations of reality and, therefore, the choices we make.
Jason had run away from home at the age of 17 because his step-father regularly abused him. He had made a life for himself, moving from homeless shelter to homeless shelter, but he was always hungry and often cold. He regularly got beaten up and raped on the street or in the shelters. When Jason was 18, an older man befriended him and offered him some heroin. Quickly, Jason retreated into heroin as a refuge from the sharp edges of life. But with no income, Jason became desperate and couldn’t support his habit. His friend then came to Jason with an offer: “I’ll send you with this guy I know – he can get you work in Detroit, and you’ll have all the money you need.”
Jason agreed, and soon he was in Detroit. When he got there he quickly realized that he was to be simply begging on the streets. The first few days he made good money, but he was forced to turn over all his money to his “agent.” On the third day, his agent made him shoplift from several electronic stores. On the fourth day, Jason protested: “What’s going on here? I could have been doing this back home and kept all the chump change I got! I’m outta here.”
“Oh no you’re not, boy! I paid good money for you and you haven’t even started to pay me back.”
At that moment, Jason realized that his “friend” had literally sold him, and that, as far as everyone was concerned, he was a slave. That night, three men grabbed him and gave him a sound beating, “just so you know your place, boy.”
He decided to try to get help. The next day, on the street, he whispered to a few people who stopped, “Please help me, I’m a slave!” but they kept on walking. A police officer came up to move him on. Again, Jason asked for help. “Please help me, they’re forcing me to do this.”
“Yeah, right, son. Move along now before I decide to lock you up.”
“Fine, then,” Jason said, grasping at this one opening, “Lock me up.”
When Seng crossed the river that forms the border between Burma and Thailand, she was starving, wet, alone and afraid. She was fleeing forced labor, rape and fighting in her home village. She had had to perform sexual favors for the border patrol on the Burmese side of the border or risk getting sent back, or killed. She had heard she should expect similar treatment from Thai authorities, and so she was incredibly relieved when a woman approached her, offered her food, dry clothes and a job. The woman said that she would find her a job in Bangkok, and that when she earned enough money she could pay her a finder’s fee. Seng stayed for five days in a small hut with other women as they waited for transport to Bangkok. More women kept arriving and the hut got more and more crowded. Finally, a truck came to take them to Bangkok. They were instructed to lie on the bed of the truck, and then they were covered with produce – bananas, cabbages and bags of rice – to hide them from the authorities at the check points. Twice, the authorities found them, and they were delayed for hours as the truck driver negotiated the bribe he would have to pay to continue on his way. Furious, he screamed at the women that the bribes were now added to their debt.
In Bangkok the group of women was dispersed, presumably going to different places to work. Seng and two others were passed along to a Thai woman who promised jobs in America if they were willing to pay a higher fee. Seng was beginning to worry about her debt, wondering how she would ever pay it off. But how could she refuse the chance to go to America, where the pay was sure to be higher? That morning she prayed hard to Buddha, and she offered him flowers and rice. She hoped that going to America was the right decision. Soon, she and the others were given fake Thai passports and tourist visas to the United States. She was told that someone would meet them at the airport and take them to their new jobs. Sure enough, an older Thai man was there to greet them. He took them to a small room, gave them some noodles to eat and locked them in.
The next morning he came back. He said they were very lucky to be in America, and most girls did not get so far. He told them they made it this far because they are very beautiful and men will pay a lot of money for some time with them. He informed them that he had paid their debt for them and that they now each owed him a total of $37,000. He said that the only way to pay him fast enough was to see as many men as possible each day – at least thirty. They were to start right away. One of the girls started to cry and he hit her, hard.
Many months later Seng was approached on the street by a young woman. She handed her a slip of paper and said that she should call if she ever needed to talk to someone about her situation. Two days later, Seng called. She told the woman everything that had happened, and the woman said that there were ways of getting her out of the situation, with no debt. She said her organization could help her. Seng refused: “But I still have so much debt to pay.”
“But the debt is illegitimate, and they’ve set it up so that you’ll never be able to pay it back. We will be able to get that debt forgiven.”
“No, you don’t understand. I know I am being punished for wrongdoing in a past life. If I don’t pay this debt now, I will only have to pay it in the next life. I will stay until my debt is cleared.”
*More example case studies about cultural consideration when assisting survivors of human trafficking:
Assisting Survivors of Human Trafficking: Multicultural Case Studies
For a quick look at what to consider and understand before interacting with a victim of human trafficking:
Considerations Before Identification