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Interview with Dr. Luke S. Bearup: Human Trafficking
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Protection against human trafficking—how is that done?

Within efforts to combat human trafficking, it is common to speak of the four Pillars of Prevention, Prosecution, Protection, and Partnership. The Protection Pillar is envisioned as incorporating all efforts to promote the recovery, rehabilitation—and reintegration—of trafficking victims. This victim category incorporates children and adults in numerous forms of exploitation and abuse. While the state is ultimately responsible for victim protection, assistance is often provided by contracted nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Case workers are generally assigned to establish a relationship and to play a coordinating role regarding the various range of interventions, services, relationships, and supports. These protection efforts, however, must interface with a whole set of social, political, economic, and cultural relations. Herein lies the challenge of formal protection work: The protective aims of practitioners and the laws, policies, and governmental organs they are guided by and represent must be reconciled in praxis with the disposition, aims, and behaviors of the client and the set of social arrangements, economic circumstances, and cultural norms in which they inhere.

Reintegration—your article “Reintegration as an Emerging Vision of Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking” indicates that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) see it as the primary objective for protection. Why do they see it that way?

Yes, for a range of reasons there has been a convergence of emphasis upon “reintegration” across several fields. For example, governments are often keen on returning “irregular” migrants and trafficking victims alike to their country of origin. Protection-focused NGOs often promote the return of street-working children or children in armed combat to their families and communities. For these stakeholders, the term “reintegration” is useful because it seems to incorporate an emphasis upon return. To some extent, the emphasis upon return to the community also reflects an attempt to wind back the vestiges of state-coordinated institutionalization of vulnerable populations and the proliferation of orphanages within “developing” or low-income country settings more generally.

Through my doctoral research, however, I found that there was something more to this concept. Within the field of practice, the concept of “re/integration” reflected an emphasis upon the establishment of social relations, whether within a former community or group (reintegration) or within a new community (integration). This relational emphasis reflected an awareness that victim protection of the Other (i.e., the excluded, trafficked, stigmatized, and marginalized subpopulations) involves assisting them to reestablish social relations within groups and institutions in accordance with cultural norms. This emphasis upon normalcy and integration in accordance with cultural norms similarly emerged as an important theme within Mike Wessells’ studies of child soldiers. Building on this, it seems that it is through being recognized as a human being and accepted as a group member that rights are awarded and opportunities provided for the reciprocal experience of being respected or honored, loved, and esteemed. Within Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition, these same reciprocal encounters are described as the basis of self-respect, self-confidence, and self-esteem.

Who reintegrates victims of human trafficking currently?

Well, I once heard of a staff member of an international organization who claimed that it had reintegrated 5,000 children by simply closing down a group of orphanages in Cambodia! Another time, I asked an NGO program manager how many formerly trafficked and sexually exploited children had been reintegrated through the program: He explained that over 500 former clients had been successfully married! Governments are increasingly bound to offer repatriation assistance to victims of trafficking and then to refer them to NGOs that are tasked with promoting their reintegration. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), for example, reports that in 2015 it assisted 69,540 people with voluntary return and reintegration.[1] The challenge is that each of the individuals and groups I have described holds contrasting understandings of reintegration and of how its achievement may be promoted and ascertained.

NGOs can’t reintegrate human trafficking victims substantively—according to your article. Why?

My point is that NGOs can’t reintegrate anyone. Rather, they can provide forms of assistance that may or may not be helpful to a person seeking acceptance within a given social group or community. I argue that NGOs should be mindful of the distinction between their procedural delivery of assistance and meeting the local norms that are relevant to the achievement and assessment of integration more substantively, within receiving social groups and social institutions. Reintegration is therefore beyond the control of NGOs and is certainly not their job alone.

Who should reintegrate the victims—and why?

As I understand it, your question aims to assign responsibility and identify a person, persons, or group that bears a duty for reintegrating each particular victim. I don’t think that any second party can fully assume this responsibility. If integration is understood as an inherently social achievement, dependent upon reciprocal forms of recognition guided by cultural norms, then responsibility for the achievement of integration is shared. It is the responsibility of the state to repatriate, protect, and assist victims of human trafficking. More generally, it is also the state’s mandate to adopt policies that aim to foster socially cohesive, welcoming, and nondiscriminatory communities in which children and vulnerable subpopulations are protected. It is also the state’s role to promote human rights and gender mainstreaming. The paradox and challenge, however, is that promoting the latter (i.e., rights, gender, etc.) can actually be quite disruptive to the former (i.e., cohesive traditional communities and traditional norms that protect)!

Procedural assistance—your article asserts—might not support reintegration into social organizations substantively. Why do you say that?

Yes, this is inherent to the challenge of social work practice. Efforts to promote the reintegration of a person within a family or group sometimes fail dismally. Moreover, sometimes the values that inform the procedural delivery of assistance openly come into conflict with local values and cultural norms. Consider for example, a hypothetical case in which an NGO seeks to empower an adolescent (former) trafficking victim through micro-enterprise development. The client is trained in rearing pigs, afforded a small loan, and coached in small business management. It is not difficult to imagine, of course, how the success of this intervention might ultimately create relational challenges within a traditional, hierarchical, and patriarchal environment. In such forms of social milieu, financial resources are typically accrued, and their distribution managed, at the head of the family. In such a setting, therefore, this attempt at economic empowerment might sabotage the possibility of the young person’s becoming reintegrated and accepted within the social hierarchy. To step outside of one’s traditional role is to also forego its protection within a traditional cultural environment.

The concept of reintegration—according to your article, it should be dual and comprise procedural and substantive parts. Why would that duality be both feasible and best?

The rights, best-practice principles, and indicators that NGOs use to guide, monitor, and evaluate the (procedural) provision of protection assistance do not necessarily align with the way that locals evaluate integration (substantively), according to local norms. Indeed, the procedural delivery of assistance is often guided by and assessed according to bureaucratic imperatives and cost-benefit analysis. As indicated by the example given above, it is important to be mindful of this potential distance between the procedural and the substantive. We might think that teaching business skills is empowering. The business may be successfully generating income. Yet, despite our best intentions, our intervention might end up being detrimental to the attainment of integration—and therefore protection—within some contexts.

Justice for victims of human trafficking—how is it determined?

In the first decade of the new millennium, it was all too common for antitrafficking efforts to focus upon successful prosecution as the primary metric of success. Given the heavy “collateral damage” caused by this approach, many have called for a rights-based approach, or a broader conception of justice that is more qualitatively focused upon preventing retrafficking or further exploitation and upon improving the lives of victims. It is in this context that the rising emphasis upon reintegration has emerged.

In response, policy makers have sought to provide guidance for practitioners upon what reintegration is and what it should entail. Despite the various strengths and contributions of these efforts to define, guide, and assess “reintegration,” they tend to promote a one-sided procedural conception as led by human rights ideals and best-practice principles. The primary weakness of the various guidelines on “reintegration” consists in their failure to distinguish between reintegration as something we do in the field of protection assistance and reintegration as something that occurs, according to local cultural norms, within families, communities, and social life. The predominant forms of guidance promote a procedural bureaucratic construction of reintegration that tends to distract attention from receiving social groups and their local cultural norms (as relevant to protection and integration). To some extent this is classic center-to-periphery aid delivery (William Easterly’s, 2006, The White Man’s Burden). A lot of resources are spent devising models, programs, and interventions in the center (e.g., Washington, DC; London; Brussels; or Geneva), which are to be imposed at the peripheries for the benefit of the Other.

How should such justice be determined?

This is the question facing those who are tasked with helping former victims of trafficking to chart their own reintegrative pathways. Yet survivors cannot do this on their own or as simply as they would like: Reintegration presumes incorporation within social groups and institutions. In short, we can do better than merely repackaging human rights standards and best-practice ideals and disseminating them to practitioners. Protection practitioners would benefit from having a theoretical framework that allows them to be aware of the tensions between rights standards and ideals and the substantive values and norms as related to integration and protection within local receiving groups and social institutions. Research related to discerning local social arrangements and cultural norms should inform the procedural delivery of assistance and related efforts to assess protection and reintegration. Methodological guidance may be helpful in allowing practitioners to identify the relevant local norms and corresponding indicators in each context. Yes, this is a work in progress!

The concept of justice—your article implies that the recent focus on reintegration rejects a more general concept of justice and that this warrants research into its social and cultural bases. Do you mean that to determine how to reintegrate victims, practitioners must discover the concept of justice of the particular society in which the victims were initially trafficked?

The challenge for practitioners is to realize and translate human rights within particular sociocultural locations in accordance with divergent visions of the good life. In practice, this leads practitioners to carefully consider potential interventions or forms of assistance, bearing in mind their clients’ individual needs and relevant social arrangements, relationships, and cultural norms. For example, within a traditional rural village in Cambodia, it would be considered inappropriate for one or two young single woman to be supported to live independently in their own residence. Such an arrangement may, however, be more appropriate to an urban location. While we might like to defend the right of a woman to live as she pleases, she would not be able to become integrated within village life under such circumstances. Similarly, a young person who has been supported to return home to his or her (traditional) family in the same village will hardly be able to invoke a claim to equality in the context of household decision making. For the young person to do so would be to transgress the expectations associated with his or her traditional role (as a young person) and to rebel against the hierarchical norms that privilege the decision-making rights of elders and particularly males. These norms, like it or not, protect (and also subjugate). We might like to challenge such norms, but a distinction must be drawn between the aims of tertiary, formal protective responses to trafficking and abuse—as focused upon an individual client—and the work of rights and gender mainstreaming. This is the challenge that contemporary “systems” approaches to child protection face: managing to keep these tensions in check.[2]

The Western vision of justice might be traced to such ancient literature as Plato’s Republic. In reintegrating victims of human trafficking worldwide, would it be useful to consider not only local customs but also such persistently and widely influential literature on justice around the world? For example, for victims in the East, should we consider such texts as the Tao Te Ching or the Dhammapada?

Plato’s Republic with its argument for universal goodness is widely interpreted as a basis for human rights. Similarly, it is broadly accepted that cultural values derived from Buddhism and also Taoism, via Confucianism, informed the development of universal human rights. Yet it would be a mistake for those working in protection to insist upon human rights, or the Dhammapada, or indeed any other external set of standards as the only relevant set of ethical standards. This would overlook the role of local norms within the workings of social life. The challenge, therefore, is in interpreting and discursively reconstructing human rights standards within a given set of sociocultural relations. Certainly within the Southeast Asian context, and Cambodia particularly, not only traditional Buddhist, Hindu, and animist cultural traditions but also modernist and postmodernist forces continue to shape and inform local social arrangements and cultural norms.

Or just the here and now—alternatively does the concept of justice require research into only the particular victims’ initial local society and culture?

Social groups and institutions reflect the cumulative influence of religions, traditions, values, and cultural norms, as reinterpreted, contested, and embodied within social agents. The key point is that we are socialized within these social groups and institutions. When a child or young person is removed from the home and acculturated to a new social group (forcibly or otherwise), he or she may be indelibly changed. Whether this change occurs through human trafficking (e.g., in a brothel, brick factory, or militia group) or protection assistance within a shelter or foster home, the effects of these environments should not be underestimated. I argue—controversially perhaps—that a return home to parents and family may not be best for the trafficking victim, child, or young person whose disposition has been radically altered through his or her socialization. Now we have come full circle, to reflect again upon the challenges of reintegration.

Dr. Luke S. Bearup is a sociologist and independent consultant researching forced migration, protection, and social integration. 




Bearup, L. S. (2016). Reintegration as an emerging vision of justice for victims of human trafficking. International Migration, 54(4), 164–176. doi: 10.1111/imig.12248.

Buddha. (1976). Dhammapada: The sayings of the Buddha (T. Byrom, Trans. & Ed.; 14th reprint 1993). Boston, MA: Shambala. (Buddha lived 563–483 B.C. These sayings were probably first written about 100–1 B.C.)

Easterly, W. R. (2006). The white man's burden: Why the West's efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good. New York: Penguin Press.

Forbes, B., Krueger, A., Benham, N., Cook, P., Wessells, M., & Williamson, J. Reconsidering child protection systems: Some critical reflections. Draft unpublished manuscript.

Honneth, A. (1995). The struggle for recognition: The moral grammar of social conflicts. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Honneth, A. (2014). Freedom's right: The social foundations of democratic life. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Lao Tzu. (2001). Tao Te Ching: The definitive edition (J. Star, Trans.). New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam. (Present version was composed gradually between 800 and 100 B.C., by various authors known collectively as Lao Tzu).

Plato. (1968). The republic of Plato (A. Bloom, Trans.). New York: Basic Books. (Original work was published about 375 B.C.).

Wessells, M. G. (2006). Child soldiers: From violence to protection. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wessells, M. G. (2015). Bottom-up approaches to strengthening child protection systems: Placing children, families, and communities at the center. Child Abuse & Neglect, 43, 8–21.

Wulczyn, F., Daro, D., Fluke, J., Feldman, S., Glodek, C., & Lifanda, K. (2010). Adapting a systems approach to child protection: Key concepts and considerations. New York: UNICEF. http://www.unicef.org/protection/files/Adapting_Systems_Child_Protection_Jan__2010.pdf


[1] http://www.iom.int/sites/default/files/our_work/DMM/AVRR/AVRR_Snapshot_2015.pdf?platform=hootsuite

[2] The systems approach to child protection has been developed drawing upon the ecological approach of Urie Brofenbrenner. See Fred Wulczyn et al. (2010) for a description and Wessells (2015) for more recent considerations. 

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