The Ethical Imperative of Safeguarding Human Trafficking Survivors Identities

Recently, a deeply troubling incident came to light involving the rescue of young Nigerian women trafficked to Winneba, Ghana for sexual exploitation. The case involves 10 teenage girls aged between 15 and 18 who were recently rescued by Nigerian and Ghanaian authorities from sex traffickers in Ghana. Shockingly, the alleged trafficker was reported to be the elder brother of three of the victims, two of whom were twins. The incident raises important issues about safeguarding human trafficking survivors and how well-intentioned help re-traumatizes victims.

Two videos of the survivors appeared on social media and quickly went viral. The videos were shared unedited by mainstream media in Nigeria, Ghana, and elsewhere. In both videos, the girls are asked to identify themselves and where they lived. In some cases, the girls give their full names and even their precise home addresses.

In one video the Chairman of Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO), Ghana, singles out one girl, drawing laughter from the onlookers. A few days later,  news sources on the web were reporting that this same 16-year-old survivor has been awarded a university scholarship and a monthly stipend by the Nigerian NGO, the Ugwumba Leadership Center.

The case attracted the attention of the Chairman/CEO of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NiDCOM), Abike Dabiri-Erewa, who, according to press reports, flew to Ghana to visit the girls accompanied by representatives from the Imo State Government, including the Deputy Speaker of the Imo State House of Assembly, Amara Iwuanyanwu, and the Commissioner for Women Affairs, Nkechinyere Ugwu.

Upon repatriation to Nigeria, the Minister of Women Affairs, Hon. Uju Kennedy-Ohanenye of the Federal Ministry of Womens Affairs, undertook to work with NAPTIP to rehabilitate the survivors. Director General of NAPTIP, Fatima Waziri–Azi, stated, “Even though the Government has a major role in tackling human trafficking, communities and families have an even greater role in tackling these issues.”

This case highlights multiple issues, including the continued proliferation of the trafficking of Nigerians to Ghana for sexual exploitation. My primary concern is the ethical implications of the high-profile and unregulated manner in which this rescue and repatriation was conducted, emphasizing the importance of safeguarding human trafficking survivors.

The Moral and Ethical Concerns

  1. Violation of Privacy and Dignity: Publicly exposing the identities of trafficking survivors is a profound violation of their privacy. These young women have already endured significant trauma, and additional exposure can lead to further psychological harm, stigma, and social isolation.
  2. The Prison of Shame: Survivors of sex trafficking suffer significantly from the isolation of shame. This public and non-consensual digital exposure serves to further reinforce their shame.
  3. Exploitation Under the Guise of Awareness: Using these videos as a warning to other potential victims re-exploits the survivors. Awareness campaigns should never come at the expense of the dignity and safety of those who have suffered. There are more respectful and effective ways to raise awareness without compromising the well-being of survivors.
  4. Safety and Security Risks: Revealing personal information, including specific locations, puts survivors at increased risk. They could face retaliation from traffickers, community ostracization, or further exploitation. Safeguarding human trafficking survivors’ identities is paramount to ensuring their safety and allowing them a chance to rebuild their lives.
  5. Divide and Rule: Publicly highlighting specific individuals can pressure them into roles or responsibilities they are not ready to take on and can inadvertently perpetuate their victimization. Singling out one survivor publicly or prioritizing one survivor in a group can victimize the remainder.
  6. Appropriate Support: While scholarships and support for survivors are commendable, support should be awarded in a manner that prioritizes the recipient’s privacy, healing, and needs. Investment in psycho-social support for survivors might be more appropriate and yield more benefit in the long term.

Best Practices for Supporting Survivors

  1. Confidentiality: Any support provided to survivors should be done with strict confidentiality. This means no public announcements or media exposure without the explicit, informed consent of the survivor, who fully understands the implications.
  2. Trauma-Informed Care: Support programs should be grounded in trauma-informed care, ensuring that survivors’ physical, emotional, and psychological needs are met. This includes providing safe spaces for recovery and respecting their autonomy and choices.
  3. Community Education Without Exploitation: Awareness campaigns should focus on the systemic issues of human trafficking and how communities can safeguard against it. Real-life stories can be shared in anonymized forms that protect survivors’ identities and dignity.
  4. Ethical Media Practices: Media and organizations should adhere to ethical guidelines when reporting on human trafficking cases. This includes not sharing identifiable information and using their platforms to advocate for safeguarding human trafficking survivors’ protection and rights.
  5. Safeguarding and Protocol: It is imperative to establish and adhere to strict safeguarding protocols during rescues and repatriation. Clear guidelines should be in place to ensure that all actions taken protect the dignity, privacy, and safety of survivors. Proper training for all personnel involved is essential to avoid unregulated actions that can further harm survivors.

Conclusion

While the intentions behind the actions of various organizations and individuals may be good, the methods used must be scrutinized. Safeguarding human trafficking survivors’ identities and dignity is not just a matter of privacy—it’s a matter of moral and ethical responsibility. We must strive to support and empower survivors in ways that respect their autonomy and promote their long-term healing and reintegration into society.

All interactions with victims and survivors should be trauma-informed, victim-centered, and above all, start from a position of “do no harm.”

You can find out more about how to speak to human trafficking survivors on OpenDemocracy and about trauma informed care on the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services website.