Collaborate! Building Collaborations to Work on Issues Related to Human Trafficking

Countries that are especially vulnerable to becoming targets of human trafficking and slavery, such as Ukraine, are often economically depressed as well as legally and politically unstable.

By Oksana Yakushko, PhD

Human trafficking and human slavery have been ravaging many countries in the recent decades, and the increase of globalization and technology seems to only support the growth of these great social ills (Bales, 2005; Monzini, 2005). The United Nations organizations as well as the U.S. Department of Justice estimate that 800,000 individuals are trafficked each year for sexual or labor exploitation. The U.N. definition of trafficking emphasizes that it is not a migration based on choice by the trafficked individuals, and involves coercion, deception, trickery as well as use of force, abuse, and threats to keep victims enslaved. Trafficking in persons is a tremendous social ill with world-wide reach and implications.

Greater economic disparities in the world have been contributing to the growth of these forced migration patterns. Countries that are especially vulnerable to becoming targets of trafficking are often economically depressed as well as legally and politically unstable. One of these countries has been Ukraine, which after the collapse of the former Soviet Union became a source for nearly 100,000 individuals trafficked every year.

My interest in Ukraine has been based on my Ukrainian roots: I immigrated to the U.S. for education 16 years ago. I maintain close ties with my country and culture, and have family members that live in Ukraine. My visits with family and colleagues in Ukraine left me with a sense of urgency to address this social ill. However, offering my services as a clinician and as a scholar has been more challenging than I anticipated. In this brief article, I will share with you reflections about my efforts to address human trafficking in my professional work.

When I realized that there was something I could do to help, I naively made appointments with various international organizations and NGOs in Kyiv, Ukraine that focused on issues related to trafficking. I shared my background as a Ukrainian and an individual with a doctoral degree in psychology from the U.S. Individuals were somewhat open but mostly seemed unclear about how we could form partnerships and naturally, quite suspicious about my wish to intrude into how they did their work. I had heard about such struggles from those who were designing school prevention programs that worked (I was told that some of the school prevention presentations had the opposite effect that wasintended!). There were also the difficulties of burnout among providers of care for individuals who served victims of trafficking, clinical training for a greater number of providers, and research about the context, circumstances, and consequences of trafficking. It seemed that it was just too difficult to forge new relationships and collaborate without a mutual working history as well as a broader range of higher level connections.

My next step was to seek out partnerships here within the U.S. with those who were interested in research and clinical work related to trafficking. I met psychologists all across the U.S. and the world who worked on eradicating trafficking. I also began to seek multidisciplinary collaborations. At this time, I am part of a team of scholars and NGO leaders working on several projects related to addressing trafficking in Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and the U.S. My colleagues are in the College of Business Administration, and are interested in studying and disrupting the patterns of how trafficking is marketed to victims and consumers. They also have done outstanding work on assessing accurate (vs. governmentally proposed) numbers of individuals being trafficked. Their estimates were an astounding 200-300% higher than the governmental estimates! This partnership is helping me not only to think of cross-disciplinary ways to address trafficking but also to learn from my colleagues as well as reach out to foreign governments, NGOs, and international human rights organizations.

One of the distinct challenges of working on issues related to human trafficking is the fear of having an interaction with the criminal world involved in human slavery. Scholars have highlighted that trafficking is conducted by highly organized criminal organizations and is very profitable (Monzini, 2005). Someone has pointed out that unlike weapons or drugs, human beings can be sold time and again. Our team’s sad joke is that we have to constantly watch out we're not found in the “city’s morgue.” This morbid joke, however, reminds us that our work to stop trafficking may (hopefully) thwart human slavery and would be unwelcome to those who are profiting from this crime. Thus, we are especially mindful of the need to collaborate with as many individuals and organizations who can bring their efforts together to address this ill.

Despite these challenges, I am energized when I think that there is something, even if small, I can do to help stop trafficking and help those who suffered from it. I am an early career professional and know that such projects and collaborations will take years to develop. I also foresee that because trafficking is receiving greater media coverage and professional attention (more presentations at APA and other conferences), I will encounter new opportunities to learn, collaborate, and find ways to contribute my skills and passion. I also am encouraged that Division 52 of International Psychology through its taskforce on immigration has discussed issues related to trafficking and has offered presentations at APA Conventions on this topic. As Margaret Mead highlighted, big changes can happen slowly with the efforts of only a few individuals, and I envision that attention to human trafficking will only continue to grow within our profession. Ψ

Bales, K. (2005). Understanding global slavery: A reader. Berkley, CA: University of California Press
Monzini, P. (2005). Sex traffic: Prostitution, crime and exploitation. Translated by P. Camiller. London: Zed Books, Ltd.