Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why do victims fall through the cracks?

That wasn't the question I intended to answer when I attended a lecture on forced migration at Johns Hopkins University in Bologna. After three hours of discussing this topic, though, the dots connected for me. The revelation I am going to explain didn't occur because of the content of the lecture, but because of what was, to me, seemingly missing from the lecture. This experience has enabled me to understand what I have been learning here in Europe - in particular what I learned during a visit to the U.N. headquarters in Vienna. I hope I can connect the dots for you, too.

A staff member at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime graciously gave me thirty minutes of his time to talk about what the UN is doing about the problem of trafficking on a global level. This issue falls under the UNODC's jurisdiction. That should have been my first clue that I wasn't going to get a satisfactory answer to the question:

"How is the UN involved in the provision of services to the victims of sexual exploitation and violence?"

I knew that the UN provided grants for NGO's and supported research regarding trafficking, but besides this, I was unaware of their involvement on the issue. My contact described three ways in which the UNODC attempts to fight trafficking:

  1. Policy recommendations
  2. Technical assistance
  3. Inter-agency cooperation

This means that the UNODC branch for trafficking provides recommendations to member states on how to address the problem, offers training and funding to organizations doing this work, and attempts to connect larger agencies that come into contact with this problem. When it comes to direct assistance to the victims themselves, the UNODC does nothing.

Honestly, it wouldn't be feasible for the office to attempt to do so. A huge inter-governmental agency like the UN could never effectively address the needs of individual victims. This is why there is a voluntary trust fund set up for grassroots organizations that do provide direct services. I know from experience, though, that it is very difficult to be awarded these funds. Furthermore, the office in which this issue is housed says it all. The UN sees trafficking as a crime - and accurately so - but this is not the only framework from which to view sexual exploitation. Dealing with a crime is different from assisting victims of trauma. I left my meeting at the UN discouraged, to be honest, that the largest inter-governmental agency in the world was so far removed from the victims my project is concerned with.

When an American student in Bologna, Italy invited me to a lecture on forced migration, I hoped that this would resolve the unanswered questions that had followed me from Vienna.

The class I attended was a part of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) program that Johns Hopkins offers to students in Washington, D.C., Bologna, and Nanjing. To begin the lecture, the professor reviewed the concept of voluntary migration, which occurs when an individual chooses to relocate in order to find a better life. This usually means sending remittances back to family members still residing in the home country.

The professor next turned to the topic of forced migration. To be honest, my definition of this concept is nowhere close to the actual definition apparently used in academic settings. In my mind, a situation of forced migration is always categorized as trafficking, where one individual forces another to migrate against their will. When listing the four types of forced migration, however, the professor never once mentioned this kind of circumstance. Forced migration, to my surprise, only refers to when an individual has no other choice but to migrate due to dangerous circumstances in their home country.

So there I was with two categories - voluntary migration and forced migration - and completely unable to fit the victims of sexual exploitation I have met neatly into either. Some had voluntarily migrated - but only after believing a lie that they would have a safe job selling purses. Others had been physically forced to migrate - but not by dangerous circumstances at home, instead by an individual with power.

The professor was basing his definitions on those set forth by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Once again, I had encountered a UN agency that I thought would be fully prepared to help victims of trafficking and was disappointed.

Attending this lecture was important, though. It made me realize that the problem is not a lack of will to help trafficking victims, but a lack of specialization. The UNODC focuses on the crime of trafficking and the UNHCR focuses on a particular type of migrant. What happens to the victims of trafficking who are too afraid to press charges and seemingly left their country voluntarily?

This is why victims fall through the cracks. We don't have a global, specialized agency that has the best interests of victims of sexual exploitation in mind. Without this, it will be impossible to truly protect these individuals. Never will a large inter-governmental agency be able to directly provide services for these individuals - that is the job of grassroots, locally based organizations (more on that later). However, these organizations are largely underfunded and underrepresented - both problems that could be remedied by greater specialization within inter-governmental agencies

I don't want you to leave this post discouraged, though. Just as I was leaving the UN headquarters last month, I passed this statue and decided to take a closer look:


Edwina Sandys, grandaughter of Winston Churchill, sculpted this memorial in 1989, after raising the funds for it herself through sales of necklace pendants of the same image. She dedicated this memorial to the advancement of women worldwide. I felt that this was a beautiful reminder that the United Nations exists, at its core, to prevent anything as atrocious as either world war from ever happening again. Unfortunately, it is the most vulnerable who are most hurt by these types of conflicts, and many women, children, and impoverished individuals are still picking up the pieces of these events. However, the UN was established, in part, as a response to this tragedy. I am grateful that an organization like the UN exists, that within its walls there is an office seeking justice for the exploited, and that its staff daily walk by this beautiful reminder that freedom is possible.

What do you think the UN and other inter-governmental agencies can do to address the problem of sexual exploitation and violence? I am very much still processing this question and would love to hear from you!


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