Great Step, but Only First, for Trafficking Survivor Empowerment

By Bukola Oriola
Published on January 29, 2016 in The Hill Blog

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During National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, it’s not enough to just talk about how to prevent modern slavery from happening. We must also focus on how to help victims and survivors of this horrible human rights crime.

As a trafficking survivor myself, I have many ideas because, while it’s no small feat to escape modern slavery, the eight months I spent trying to survive immediately afterwards were almost as challenging.

I know firsthand, for example, that we must find a way to reach victims with a promise that community and government assistance is available. We must also provide shelter services to survivors, and inform them of their legal rights. Beyond that, though, we must offer education, including language, professional development, and basic life skills like how to drive, apply for food stamps and open a bank account.

While some of these necessities are universal to all trafficking survivors, I know that my experience is just one of thousands, and we need to understand so much more in order to adequately support all survivors.

In December, I was thrilled when President Obama appointed me as one of 11 representatives on the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. For years, survivor advocates and others in the anti-trafficking community had called on Congress to create such a council, and it was finally mandated when the Survivors of Human Trafficking Empowerment Act passed last year. Led by survivors, the council’s purpose is to review and recommend policy and programs on human trafficking, report to senior administration and agency officials, and submit a report to the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

For me, this is not just an honor; it’s a pledge to represent and aid other survivors. I take that pledge very seriously, and my great hope is that the council will be resourced and empowered so that we can fully represent the diverse experiences of all who endure human trafficking.

To do my job well, I feel I must learn more about issues and concerns of trafficking survivors in the Midwest region. It’s a big area with diverse populations, and there are many different kinds of human trafficking. While I was abused, imprisoned and forced to give up my wages, there are also American and foreign national women, men and children being trafficked into the commercial sex trade, and immigrants trafficked into forced labor under false promises of legal work.

No matter how passionately I would like to, I cannot represent all of these people based solely on my own personal experience. To be effective, I—and all of my colleagues on the council—must go back to the communities in our regions and find out how trafficking slips through the cracks unnoticed by authorities. We need to really understand what services survivors need, and how current systems need to be changed in order to meet those needs.

For example, in my state of Minnesota, there is only one person who can sign the Law Enforcement Declaration required to apply for a T visa, a critical form of protection for non-citizen trafficking survivors. Because of this gap, T visa applicants (like me) must seek other options like the U visa in order to have the legal authorization to receive benefits like food stamps and housing benefits – but the U visa gives survivors reduced access to specialized services. Although the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services states that the Law Enforcement Declaration is optional, the victim carries a greater burden without it, which leads to a long wait and increased trauma for someone already suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

This is just one example in one community. I desperately want and need to understand the hurdles facing other trafficking survivors. By promoting survivors as leaders, I believe that the new advisory council will help me and others to do this, as well as provide unique and valuable insights and information to policy makers and agency staff. But only if Congress and the administration strengthen their support of survivor leadership, and invest in helping us do our job. That means providing staff, communication infrastructure, and financial compensation for participation in official meetings and calls. For many of us, taking a day or two from our work schedule – or even an hour or two – can present a real financial hardship.

The advisory council is a great step toward recognizing trafficking survivors as leaders in the fight to end human trafficking in the United States, and I look forward to helping it fulfill its potential and purpose.

Oriola is an author, human trafficking survivor, and member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. She lives in Anoka County, Minn.