14 January, 2015 (Date Pending)


In 2013, the US Department of State reported that 46,000 victims of trafficking were identified worldwide out of the estimated 27,000,000 victims of trafficking.1 This illustrates the fact that current victim identification processes and those who implement them are struggling in their task of identifying victims. A greater understanding of the multi-layered identification process is required and first responders ought to understand the issues affecting victim identification processes. The following section aims to examine some such issues.

Identification Is A Complex And Multi-Layered Process

Due to the complex and silent nature of the human trafficking crime, identification is not a straightforward process. There are several components to this process ranging from the assessment following the initial referral to the conclusion of a police investigation and formal judicial recognition of victimhood following court proceedings.2 Due to various reasons set out below, not all suspected cases of trafficking undergo these different levels of identification. Preliminary identification is key as it entitles a victim to justice in order to protect their rights. At this stage, a victim may also be referred to relevant support services. Recognition at the end of a police inquiry makes it easier to access support because it legitimizes the victim’s situation especially where the latter is involved in a violation of immigration and/or criminal laws and therefore not entitled to access support per se. Judicial recognition often entitles the victim to further rights, e.g. restitution, residence etc.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) describes the many levels of victim identification as follows:3

Victim identification is a complex and time-consuming process that may involve the following stages (but not necessarily all of them):


  • Preliminary identification of presumed victims by non-specialized police in partnership with community members;
  • Identification by specialized police units for the purpose of deciding whether the crime of human trafficking was committed;
  • Procedural identification where the victim is already a part of a criminal justice process as a witness or an injured party (usually done by public prosecution); and
  • Judicial identification (done by court decision) that gives a victim the right to ask for or receive compensation.


Women’s low status in their country of origin often colours their experience as victims. In particular, there is a real reluctance to come forward and seek help as that would involve an admission of actions that are likely to bring shame on the victim. For a victim, concealing their identity becomes a means of escaping re-victimization.



Fear Of Authorities

Victims’ lack of cooperation with the police is often an issue faced by investigations into human trafficking cases. Victims’ perceptions are often influenced by their experience with authorities in their own country of origin. In particular, in many states, law enforcement officials are often corrupted or complicit in human trafficking activities hence leading to victims’ lack of faith in their ability to help. In many cases, police are often a means used by the Government to perpetuate a rule of fear and victims are inherently fearful of such officials.

Fear Of Reprisals

Traffickers often recruit victims from neighbourhoods/families known to them. This becomes a means of controlling and securing the compliance of victims by persistently making threats to the victim in relation to his/her family and friends. As a result, victims often refuse to collaborate with the police investigation for fear of inviting reprisals against their loved ones. Victims often fear reprisals upon themselves if they fail to comply with the traffickers’ orders. Such reprisals can take the form of beatings, sleep or food deprivation and extreme isolation.

Nexus Between Immigration/Crime And Trafficking

Human trafficking often involves breaches of immigration and/or criminal laws by victims as a direct result of being trafficked. Moreover, the focus on the element of movement in the act of trafficking serves to frame trafficking as an immigration/criminal issue as opposed to a gross abuse of human rights. Victims are often criminalized for falling foul of immigration laws and this further shrouds their victim status.4 Victims’ fear of deportation often leads to traffickers strengthening their control over victims.5

The Palermo Protocol does not expressly require States to refrain from criminalizing victims but best practice guidelines such as The Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights denounce criminalization of victims. Criminalization of victims significantly decreases the chances of them seeking help from the authorities and limits victims’ ability to access justice and claim their rights. This also has a knock-on effect on the likelihood of a successful prosecution.

Victims’ Lack Of Understanding Of Their Victimhood

Victims often blame themselves for their plight (e.g. where the victim has incurred a debt and is repaying the trafficker using his/her earnings) or are ashamed of their situation and therefore fail to self-identify. Moreover, the fact that victims often fall foul of immigration laws and have a poor understanding of the laws of the destination country and subsequently of their rights makes it harder for them to realize that they are victims and that they have rights.6



Relationship With The Trafficker

Victims are often bound to their traffickers by intricate relationships ranging from personal relationships through marriage to simply their perception that the trafficker, often a fellow countryman, will be their sole support network in a foreign land. Traffickers are often the sole link between the victim and the outside world especially where the victim’s immigration status is irregular. The trafficker in this scenario often purports to protect the victim from the authorities and uses this as means of controlling the victim. Control (physical or psychological) is a central feature of the relationship between a trafficker and his/her victim. In addition, victims often suffer from Stockholm Syndrome which in turn makes identification even harder to achieve due to the victim’s misguided notion that the trafficker is there to protect them and look out for their interests.7


End Notes:


1 US Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 2013, p.7.
2 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Trafficking in Human Beings: Identification of Potential and Presumed Victims, 2011, Approaches to Victim Identification and Main Principles, IV.2.
3 Id. at IV.2.

4 Id at II.1.
5 Heather J. Clawson and Nicole Dutch, US Department of Health and Human Services, Identifying Victims of Human Trafficking: Inherent Challenges and Promising Strategies from the Field (2008), available at


6 UNODC, Toolkit to Combat Trafficking in Persons, Tool 6.2, Immigration Status.
7 Clawson and Dutch, supra note 5.




  • Clawson, Heather J. and Dutch, Nicole, US Department of Health and Human Services, Identifying Victims of Human Trafficking: Inherent Challenges and Promising Strategies from the Field, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2008.
  • Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Trafficking in Human Beings: Identification of Potential and Presumed Victims, 2011.
  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Toolkit to Combat Trafficking in Persons, 2006.
  • US Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 2013.


Table of Contents:


1. Definitions And Characteristics

2. Issues Surrounding Identification Of Victims Of Trafficking

3. Government Response To Human Trafficking

4. Actors Involved In The Identification Process And Their Likely Encounters With Victims

5. Identification Protocols And Questionnaires

6. Child Trafficking

7. Support Services, Victim’s Charter Of Rights

8. Recommendations

9. Annex 1: Generic Exploitation Profiles

10. Annex 2: Training Kit





For further information, please contact:

Archana Sinha Kotecha, Liberty Asia

[email protected]

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