Policy to Practice: The Difficulties in Identifying Human Trafficking

By Jenna Tyrpak, J.D. Class of 2021

During my 1L summer, I interned with a USAID project in Kathmandu, Nepal, aimed at eradicating labor trafficking of Nepali migrant workers. As a result, most of my work centered on helping the Law and Governance team draft proposed amendments to various labor and employment laws. For ten weeks, I was immersed in the counter-trafficking policy world.  

Undoubtedly, policy work plays an important role in counter-trafficking efforts. The project I worked with valued partnerships with various non-profits managed by trafficking survivors. When we drafted amendments, we meticulously consulted data all about the survivors’ experiences. We seemed to be asking all the right questions: How were they recruited? How were they coerced? How did they escape?  

Still, I remember a cautious warning from the project’s Chief of Party, someone who spent many years in the counter-trafficking advocacy world. We were all packed in a crowded conference room with various partner non-profits and government officials. Before she jumped into the agenda, she gave a careful reminder: 

“Human trafficking is the crime that hides. Sometimes it looks like a broken contact. Other times it looks like a few missed wages. Sometimes the people enduring human trafficking never realize they’ve experienced it.” 

Now as a 3L in William & Mary Law School’s Immigration Clinic, those words have an even stronger impact on me than it did when I was still in the purely policy realm. On behalf of the Clinic, I interviewed clients with cases that mark many of the known warning signs of human trafficking. On paper, their files look like cases I read about in Nepal; I’ve encountered people who described difficult work environments or complex family situations, all pointing to the kinds of vulnerabilities we expect in human trafficking. The difference this time around was that these individuals never described their experiences as “trafficking.”  

When I worked in policy, I had the benefit of reading data from individuals identified as trafficking survivors and who referred to themselves as such. As a law student in the clinic, I’m potentially the first person identifying my clients as trafficking survivors. And, I may identify trafficking survivors who never considered their traumatic experiences as trafficking.  

We spend a lot of time in the clinic discussing trauma-informed interviewing. When it comes to trafficking cases, there is an additional hurdle to overcome when interviewing clients. For a lot of people, their only reference point of what trafficking looks like comes from media portrayals—think Liam Neeson in Taken. In reality, human trafficking is so heinous because of how easy it is for that exploitation to look like something else. Clients may describe domestic violence scenarios or difficult work conditions, not recognizing their experiences meet the legal definition of human trafficking. For those of us interviewing such clients, we have a responsibility to navigate those conversations delicately, asking open-ended questions and never making assumptions.  

Counter-trafficking policy is most effective when fueled by the experiences and opinions of survivors. After a semester in the Immigration Clinic, I realize even more how difficult identifying trafficking survivors can be.