Prioritizing Mental Health in Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is a global challenge, with an estimated 50 million people exploited in the Asia-Pacific region, in Africa, in Latin America and the Caribbean, in central and south-eastern Europe, in the European Union and developed economies, and in the growing informal labour market in  Middle East (International Labour Office, 2022).  Trafficking in Persons is a human rights violation that occurs around the world. Many survivors of trafficking have mental health problems, specifically symptoms of anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  A study on mental health that was carried out with women in Nepal who were trafficked for sex work and various forms of labor (n=164) found that sexually exploited women reported higher levels of anxiety, depression and PTSD than did women exploited for other purposes.

One of the main programs and initiatives through which CHTEA responds to the emerging human trafficking dynamic in Kenya is through; Rescue, Rehabilitation, Return and Re-integration of victims/survivors of trafficking (VOTs). CHTEA has a Liaison Officer based at Beirut, Lebanon and covers the larger Gulf Region. The Officer also manages a small rescue facility based at Beirut as she seeks to work with like-minded organizations to seek shelter services for VOTs and also raise funds to facilitate their travel tickets back to Kenya.

Upon arrival in Kenya, the survivors/victims are received at the airport by CHTEA Nairobi staff upon which they are taken through an assessment. Some of them are referred to the shelter/safe house (managed by CHTEA) for medical and psycho-social support. Some of the survivors usually arrive in very bad states of mind and some may not even recognize their family members. It’s very disheartening that the victims suffer extremely traumatizing experiences that make some of them end up developing long term mental disorders.

Case study

During one of the routine pick-ups from the airport in early July 2022, family members and CHTEA staff received one, Betty (not her real name) who suffered from extreme Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She was mentally unstable. Betty had traveled to Nairobi from Lebanon in the company of another two survivors who acted as Betty’s minders. “When you called us at Addis airport, we had lost track of Betty and we had to report to the airport security in order to help us locate her since our connecting flight was delayed by 2 hours”, said Agnes (not her real name), one of the returnee minders. When the group finally arrived at Nairobi airport, Betty was again lost at the baggage area waiting to identify her suitcase. Even though the flight arrived at 1.00pm,

Betty had not come out of the airport precincts 4 hours later. Eventually, the waiting team got concerned and after enquiring from the airport customer care desk, an officer retorted that, “there is a mentally unstable lady detained by the security inside at the check-out office.” Betty’s sister and CHTEA staff approached the security desk and explained that the detained lady was indeed a sister to Ruth. Betty was shortly escorted out to the delight of the waiting Ruth (sister). She was warmly received by the entire team and escorted to have a cup of coffee at a nearby restaurant. Even though Betty could not believe that she was in Kenya, she could be seen gazing around in amazement.

After going through a brief screening interview by a CHTEA staff, it was discovered that Betty was suffering from a mental health breakdown and that she could hardly comprehend what was happening. Inadvertently, Betty would describe her experience in Lebanon as a great saying that she was treated very nicely and even given off-days (which was not the case).

Ruth’s family requested to take her home despite the advice given that she could be referred to the shelter for medical and psychosocial support. The family pledged to ensure that she received instant care for both her medical/mental and psychosocial needs. A follow up schedule was agreed with the family – 4 to 5 monitoring visits were made to the family to check out on Betty’s recovery path. She made great strides in improvement.

Although traumatic experience while being trafficked may induce or exacerbate mental disorders, poor mental health may also increase vulnerability to trafficked victims in the context of weak decision-making capacity and increased dependency on others. Trafficked individuals’ risk of mental disorder appears to be influenced by multiple factors, including pre-trafficking abuse; duration of exploitation; violence and restrictions on movement while being trafficked. Others include greater volumes of unmet needs and lower levels of social support following trafficking.

In conclusion, mental health problems are prevalent among trafficked people while survivors often require support to recover from the psychological impact of their experiences. Mental health professionals have a key role to play in responding to human trafficking. Awareness raising and training are required to ensure professionals are prepared to respond to trafficking and to safely identify and refer trafficked people to the care that they need and deserve.

CHTEA has a clear referral pathway beginning with individual assessments (to identify needs) which then leads to the design of a care plan which incorporates the array of professionals needed to provide the desired services. Such include psychiatrists, psycho-social therapists, hospitals, social workers (for family reintegration programmes), sociologists and internal administrators who coordinate service delivery and logistics. In situations where legal serviced are required, CHTEA has collaborative frameworks with among others “Kituo Cha Sheria”, a pro-bono legal NGO, FIDA Kenya, the Coalition on Violence Against Women, among others. In case a trafficker is to be arrested or in matters of investigation, CHTEA works closely with the Transnational Organized Crime Unit (TOCU) and the Anti Human Trafficking and Child Protection Unit (AHTCPU); both of which are within the jurisdiction of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations.

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