A new study by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, the Freedom Fund and Praxis has found that access to decent employment, education and knowledge of labour rights are critical for survivors to secure long-term freedom from trafficking.
Researchers interviewed survivors of trafficking in the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to assess the realities of freedom and whether this can be sustained long term. Survivors were interviewed one-to-three years after receiving reintegration support from Freedom Fund partner Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). The forms of exploitation respondents had experienced included child labour and debt bondage, mainly in brick kilns.
The study identified choice, decent income, freedom from debt, and self-representation as critical components of survivors’ sustained liberation. Child survivors said that freedom means being able to go to school, play and plan for their future.
The reliance on loans for basic survival, to build adequate housing, pay medical bills, support tertiary education, or to support self-employment was particularly problematic. While loans at favourable rates were invaluable to enabling survivors to address some of these issues and to clear or reduce historic (legitimate) high interest loans, many participants were living in a cycle of perpetual debt that made them vulnerable to further exploitation.
Survivors explained that the ability of communities to organise and prevent exploitation was crucial to developing independence and securing long-term freedom. Support from the philanthropic community for the creation and provision of ongoing services for these groups is therefore critical for facilitating sustained liberation.
The researchers found that sustained liberation is a likely, but not certain, outcome following rescue, and only if a range of interventions and ongoing support are in place. Without the support provided by NGOs and community groups, many survivors would have fallen back into exploitation. Economic pressures and ill health were cited as the most common barriers to freedom, with the majority of respondents highlighting decent wages as critical to sustaining freedom.
Support from NGOs is most effective when it works with community groups to strengthen self-representation, reducing the risks of exploitation in the future. One female survivor said: “Nobody will be able to trouble us if we stay together. We were individual fingers. Now we are a fist.”
The study also explored the effectiveness of reintegration services provided to survivors by four frontline India NGOs – Centre Direct; Manav Sansadhan Evam Mahila Vikas Sansthan (MSEMVS); National Institute for Rural Development, Education, Social Upliftment and Health (NIRDESH); and Pragati Gramodyog Sansthan (PGS).
Based on survivors’ responses, the study made the following recommendations:
- Liberation from debt bondage is critical; survivors need assistance securing decent employment with adequate wages.
- Knowledge of labour rights is of immense benefit to survivors, allowing them to avoid future exploitative situations. Community led approaches to ensuring independence and asserting labour rights are necessary to sustain freedom.
- Some survivors are not aware of who to turn to for support. NGOs are encouraged to raise awareness and strengthen community-level knowledge, and future interventions must consider how to sustain long-term independence.
- The Indian government should continue to improve protections for workers in high-risk industries.
- The reach and availability of public healthcare should be improved since many survivors become indebted due to medical bills.
- The government should consider providing cash transfers, scholarships and education grants to survivors and children from low socio-economic backgrounds.
Survivors need to be leading the conversation about their own freedom. We must commit to listening to survivors for the long-term and be willing to adapt our interventions based on these conversations. Survivors’ lived experiences of sustained liberation must become a focal point of research, and our new report is an important step in that direction.