Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking

Centering Survivors in the Anti-Trafficking Movement: Survivor-Driven Policy Suggestions

Today’s guest post comes from Julia Owen, a recent alumni of LCHT’s Leadership Development Program. Julia works professionally in the immigration field in Colorado. Her suggestions around survivor-driven policy came through an independent review of survivor-led resources as well as input from existing survivor leaders.


While the anti-trafficking field is moving towards a survivor-centered model, it continues to grapple with the ways survivors are marginalized by their own movement. According to Survivor Alliance’s Allies Toolkit for Survivor Empowerment*, survivors are rarely approached for their input on anti-trafficking policy development or program and research design, and are not always compensated appropriately for their work. A report by GEMS states survivors are still viewed by many as “weak” or  “hopeless” people, defined by their traumatic experiences and even seen as “perpetual victims”. To move forward with integrity, the anti-trafficking movement must commit to centering survivors, which means listening and responding to what survivors want and need. An Urban Institute study showed a surveyed group of human trafficking survivors had strong ambitions: they want to help others, achieve “stability and empowerment”, stop traffickers from harming others, and realize a sense of justice by moving forward with their lives. In short, they want to thrive.

To move forward with integrity, the anti-trafficking movement must commit to centering survivors, which means listening and responding to what survivors want and need.

Filling Systemic Gaps

While survivors of human trafficking are not a monolith, survivor-driven policy recommendations touch on similar themes. Many recommendations focus on addressing the systemic issues that made survivors vulnerable to exploitation to begin with, including needs for:

  • Housing
  • Legal assistance
  • Employment
  • Education
  • Social capital
  • Safety
  • Food Security

It is important to remember that these needs are basic human rights, the components everyone needs to thrive. A lack of access to these integral resources stems from systemic issues, and is a major driver for human trafficking.

Centering the Full Diversity of Survivors

The 2019 U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking report highlights the importance of centering the full diversity of survivors, recognizing that “the most vulnerable human trafficking victims are those that are never identified”, as less service providers, data, and funding exist for underserved populations. Trauma-informed and culturally appropriate services are needed for survivors, especially underserved communities including elderly people, men and boys, people identifying as LGBTQIA, indigenous populations, people with disabilities, and survivors of labor trafficking.

The U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, comprised of eight survivor leaders who bring their expertise and experience, prioritized centering the full diversity of survivors in their 2019 Annual Report. 📷 ICF

These underserved populations have unique vulnerabilities which must inform services meant for survivors. For example, the Human Trafficking Leadership Academy Class 5 Recommendations mention intergenerational trauma patterns from forced assimilation experienced in indigenous communities. The U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking has cited issues of prosecution on tribal land for indigenous communities.

A final focus of the recommendations is recognizing as Survivor Alliance’s Allies Toolkit* states, that survivors have more to offer than their stories, not only to the anti-trafficking movement, but to a variety of fields. Centering survivors begins with seeing them as they are: formidable, resilient people determined to thrive, and tired of being condemned to “permanent victim-hood”.

What Policies Do Survivors Suggest?

Establish a federal and local housing preference for survivors of trafficking

HUD should establish a “federal housing preference for survivors of trafficking”, and work with communities to establish a local housing preference. Survivors need increased options for affordable emergency, transitional, and permanent housing which is supportive to those with substance abuse disorders, and does not require attending religious services, sobriety, or leaving sex work.

Provide greater funding for data collection and services for underserved survivors of trafficking

Federal grantmaking agencies should fund customized services, increased data collection, and service provider training specifically for underrepresented survivor populations. Government agencies should ensure temporary financial assistance and comprehensive services are offered inclusively to all survivors. 

Provide survivors education, training, and opportunities to practice skills

Increase funding for survivor access to education including scholarships for higher education, vocational/leadership opportunities, financial literacy training, and the removal of barriers to education like the need for legal status. Offer leadership development programs for survivors which build up practical leadership skills and real-world opportunities. Ensure those programs are culturally competent, non-judgmental, and accepting of survivor recidivism. Organizations including survivor voices should build training and mentorship into as many areas as possible according to the Allies Toolkit* by Survivor Alliance.

Offer survivors diverse, supportive employment opportunities

Survivor Alliance’s Allies Toolkit* suggests hiring survivors as consultants and employees, and GEMS recommends offering a variety of paid positions which allow survivors to explore their skills and interests. The “Allies Toolkit” also suggests accommodating “different working and learning styles” and reserving enough resources to compensate survivors fairly, including paying for survivor expenses up front. Facilitate social capital for survivors to help them obtain education/employment opportunities. Require government-funded human trafficking training be a part of program development to ensure sustainable survivor employment. Remove barriers to employment by assisting survivors with vacating criminal records, improving access to  T-visas, and removing age/background check requirements for federal employment assistance programs.

Educate prosecutors and courts on mandatory restitution

In 2016, only 27% of trafficking cases ended with an order for mandatory criminal restitution, and the majority of survivors never saw restitution funds even when they were ordered by a court. As federal law specifically requires criminal restitution for survivors of trafficking, prosecutors must be trained in how to request restitution successfully, and judges trained on how restitution functions in human trafficking statutes.

Respect survivors as leaders who offer more than their stories

 Adopt a “strengths-based approach” to including survivor voices, emphasize survivor resiliency, and equip survivors with training in a trauma-informed, victim-centered practice. Survivor Alliance’s Allies Toolkit* urges allies to understand that survivors are more than their “trauma narratives”, and can contribute to fields outside of anti-trafficking. The Allies Toolkit* suggests “sharing power” with survivors,  respecting them as leaders and decision makers, and proactively including survivors on boards, committees, and hiring committees. Finally, the Allies Toolkit*  also recommends including survivor input at all stages of projects, but being transparent with survivors where there is not “room for influence”.


The Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking recognizes it is more important than ever to listen to survivor voices, and take action based upon what survivors want and need to thrive. LCHT’s research including Colorado Project 2.0 uses the Participatory Action Research framework in order to build knowledge with communities, and enact social change through the research process itself. Our research seeks to better understand the crime of human trafficking, and how to end it by collaborating with organizations, volunteers, academics, community service providers, activists, and importantly, survivors. 

*Survivor Alliance’s document “Allies Toolkit for Survivor Empowerment” is not available online, but can be obtained by taking a training with Survivor Alliance. To find out more about Survivor Alliance and their trainings, please visit their website.

Author: Julia Owen
Julia Owen participated in the Fall 2020 Leadership Development Program at LCHT as a Research and Action Intern. She would highly recommend this program to anyone who wishes to better understand the human rights and anti-trafficking spaces while growing as a leader! Julia has volunteered for nonprofits domestically and abroad that support human rights. She currently works in the immigration field in Denver.

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