No Escape: The Enduring Effects of Trauma on the Emotional Health of Human Trafficking Survivors

Jul 31, 2019

Human traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to trap their victims into lives of labor or sexual servitude. In order to maintain control, traffickers subject their victims to physical and psychological abuse in order to foster dependency, isolation and fear. According to statistics cited on Polaris, a national anti-trafficking organization, there are approximately 40.3 victims of human trafficking across the globe; the majority of these are women and 25% are children. Trafficking is not just a crime that occurs in other countries – it is a booming industry right here in the United States. According to, the US Department of Justice reports that United States citizens comprised 83% of sex trafficking victims. Since human traffickers attempt to avoid detection by hiding their victims from public view, trafficking statistics likely underrepresent the number of trafficking victims. Traffickers tend to target vulnerable populations from marginalized communities; that said, anyone can become a victim of trafficking.

Survivors who escape trafficking live with physical and psychological scars. While medical treatment helps restore survivors’ physical health, many continue to grapple with emotional wounds long after their bodies heal. Trafficking survivors present with an array of psychological challenges including: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), anxiety, depression, panic disorder and Stockholm Syndrome. Many trafficking survivors also struggle with substance abuse because their traffickers got them addicted to drugs in order to maintain their compliance and dependence.

Survivors who exhibit Stockholm Syndrome experience feelings of closeness and sympathy with their traffickers, tending to rationalize or minimize the abuse to which they were subjected. While they are being trafficked, this allegiance may help trafficking victims survive their enslavement. However, once they escape their trafficking situation, an over-identification with their trafficker may prevent survivors from seeking the help they need or cooperating with authorities to bring the perpetrator to justice.

Many trafficking survivors experience suicidal ideation – that is, they think about or even plan suicide. A study on the psychological consequences of child trafficking, published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, reports, “A large proportion of trafficked children (33%) presented with deliberate self-harm and 27% had a record of attempted suicide.” Social isolation is a significant risk factor for suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Traffickers isolate their victims from their family, friends and community; once survivors are free from servitude they often find themselves feeling very much alone. This pervasive sense of isolation compromises survivors’ well-being, and sometimes, their lives.

The trauma endured by trafficking survivors does not necessarily stop with the victims. When their parents are unable to heal from horrors of trafficking, the children of survivors may be negatively influenced by their parents’ trauma. In her thesis, “The Psychological Effects of Human Trafficking on the Second Generation,” Katerina Calvo writes, “Like their parents, children of trauma victims carry with them the anxiety, shame, and stigma of the event.” In order to prevent the devastating effects of intergenerational trauma, trafficking survivors must have access to a range of specialized healing modalities. Our attorneys use the civil justice system to hold human traffickers and the systems that support them accountable for their abuses. We are committed to helping our clients recover the assets they need to heal and build happy, productive lives. If you or someone you know is a survivor of human trafficking, please contact us today for a free consultation.

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