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Meet Them Where They're At

When people hear about the work I do with survivors, they often want to share with me the latest story they have heard about trafficking. As they share details, it could be about a case or a news story I hadn’t yet heard, and yet elements of it - the targeting, recruiting, grooming or conditioning, and exploitation of victims - tend to follow similar patterns. Despite this, trafficking can look vastly different and take on different forms. How an individual is targeted internationally - from around the world into the United States or Canada, for example - can often look different from how American and Canadian individuals are trafficked domestically. And I was struck by a recent Do Justice blog post about how intervention strategies can look different around the world as well.

I was in a church in New York a few years ago when a man came up to me and said “I’ll tell you how you need to rescue these victims of human trafficking!” Smiling politely, I engaged him in conversation. He proceeded to tell me that I needed to go into hotels, find victims, and physically pull them out of their trafficking situation. He mentioned that this is often how intervention happens in brothels across southeast Asia.

Intervening when a victim is being exploited by a romeo pimp can be complicated.

While I appreciated his fervor for wanting to protect those being exploited, I explained to him how in North America, this isn’t always the most promising or successful practice.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a concerned CRC member who was aware of someone being trafficked. She wanted to know what to do to help her. I responded to her and explained my suggestions for next steps all depends on whether the individual had requested help or not. I explained to this concerned individual that often trafficking in the United States and Canada happens by exploiters we call “Romeo Pimps,” individuals who pose as boyfriends and use emotional manipulation to exploit their victims. Despite the fact that romeo pimps can also be violent and use threats and coercion to control their victims, intervening when a victim is being exploited by a romeo pimp can be complicated because of the emotional bond - and even love - she may feel towards her exploiter. In fact, a young girl trafficked by Canada’s first convicted human trafficker, Imani Nakpangi, was reportedly enraged with law enforcement when they arrested him and was determined to find money for his bail. She was 14 years old. I have supported survivors of trafficking who have cried to me that they miss their “boyfriends.” When you understand the complicated relationships between victims and exploiters, it becomes easier to understand why it often takes multiple attempts for victims to leave exploitation before they leave for good. 

But being there for people ... establishes trust that paves the way for the future. 

And this is why it isn’t always as simple as intervening by going into a situation and physically removing victims from exploitation. There are exceptions, of course. Children should be protected at all costs. This can be difficult when even they are under the impression that their exploiter cares for their wellbeing or loves them. But there are laws in place to protect minors, and we have the responsibility to remove them from harmful situations at all costs.

My practice has been to “meet people where they are at.” This is difficult to do when you witness someone in a situation you know is harmful. But being there for people - even when they make choices that you don’t necessarily agree with - establishes trust that paves the way for the future when they might be ready to escape exploitation. 

So what might you do if someone you know is being exploited and you sense that a legal or physical intervention might not be successful in helping them escape? 

Ask questions

Victims of human trafficking often do not even identify as being trafficked. Many survivors I’ve worked with said they never even heard of trafficking until after they received help. Traffickers do not always seek help by saying “I am being trafficked” or ever call their boyfriend a “pimp” or a “trafficker.” 

Confronting them with this reality isn’t always helpful. Instead, help them explore and wonder about their own journeys. Ask questions instead of offering advice. Though they might want to focus on the ways that their exploiter shows them affection or belonging, ask them questions (gently) that might help them become more curious about their situation: 

  • How much are you making? Does he let you keep all the money that you make?
    Romeo pimps often convince their victims that the money she is making is for their future, and victims often have little control over their money. Asking these questions might help her reexamine his promises to her. 

  • Could you leave if you wanted to?
    Traffickers will often impose “exit fees,” arbitrary amounts of money he says she has to make before she can leave the sex trade. These amounts are often exorbitant or even if she makes this amount, he will raise it. Or a trafficker might threaten harm or harm of a loved one if she wants to leave. 

Help identify the next stage

I once worked with a young victim whose pimp promised her that if she returned to him, she wouldn’t have to “work,” she could just be his girlfriend. I was obviously very doubtful that he was being truthful. Recognizing that relationships between victim and exploiter are complicated and not wanting to push her further away from me, I gently cautioned her that I was hopeful he was being truthful but that if things ever changed, if he changed his mind and coerced her into the sex trade again, I’d be here for her.  

It can be helpful to point out what the next stages of their exploitation might look like, so when they get to that point they recognize that you are someone who knows what they are going through and can provide assistance.

Reach out

Victims often feel immense shame and grief in exploitation. This can prevent them from reaching out to loved ones when things are tough. Sending a quick message that you are thinking of them goes a long way. It reminds them that people do care for them. It also helps dispel the lies that traffickers often tell their victims: that no one will ever care for them as much as he does. 


Pray for transformation. Not just for victims and survivors. But for exploiters, buyers, our justice system, and our society. 

Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash

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