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Mercy & Mishpat: A different approach to preventing human trafficking

Content warning: this post reflects on how society - mostly personal attitudes, but to an extent legal approaches - responds to and treats perpetrators of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. I am not a survivor of trafficking or exploitation, so my reflections about these matters are from a distance. As someone who works closely with individuals who have been personally affected by these crimes, I make every effort to be sensitive to their victimization and experiences. However, some of my reflections may be triggering for those who are not in a space where they can consider themes of forgiveness, redemption, or grace for perpetrators of crime. If you are a survivor of crime, this post might be difficult, but it is not my intention for it to be harmful or hurtful in sharing my reflections. This might not be an article that some are in a position to read, and that is ok.

During my graduate work, I researched the ways that traffickers and pimps recruit, condition, and traffic women and girls in Canada. For the most part, traffickers and pimps are strategic and methodical in their victimization of others. And they should be held accountable for their actions and the long-lasting impact they have on others. 

The question I’ve been grappling with lately though is how should they be held accountable?

I don’t have perfect answers to this question. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than I on the criminal justice system or on practices like restorative justice. But in my work of supporting survivors of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, questions often arise about who traffickers and exploiters are. Research and statistics on traffickers and pimps is lacking. The statistics available in Canada mostly come from police-reported incidents of human trafficking, and - just like other crimes involving sexual violence - human trafficking is underreported, so these statistics do not capture the full picture of what trafficking looks like. The 2021 Canadian Trafficking in Persons report has this to offer: 

  • The majority of of those accused (41%) are between the ages of 18-24. 35% are between the ages of 25-34; 12% are 35-44; 7% are 45 and older; 5% of those accused are youth between the ages of 12-17.
  • 81% of accused traffickers are men and boys.
  • More than six in ten (64%) of accused are men between the ages of 18-34. 
  • In each adult age group, men outnumbered women among accused persons. Among the relatively small number of youth accused, girls outnumbered boys (56% versus 44%).
  • Nine in ten (91%) victims knew their accused trafficker, while 9% were trafficked by a stranger. 
  • One-third (33%) of victims were trafficked by an intimate partner while nearly one-quarter (23%) of victims were trafficked by a casual acquaintance. 6% were trafficked by a friend and 3% by a non-spousal family member.

None of these statistics help us understand the persons who committed these crimes. They don’t help us understand their histories, their motivations for trafficking, or who they are as persons. 

  • “There’s a special place in hell for them.” 
  • “Lock them up and throw away the key.” 
  • “They should be lined up and shot.”

These are statements I have heard from individuals after I have spoken about human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. They also happen to be statements I’ve heard in sanctuaries, foyers, and fellowship halls of churches. They have been said by individuals who have heard my sermons, information sessions, or presentations hosted by or put on by churches. Arguably, given the setting, these are statements said by people who might identify as Christians.

I don’t necessarily fault people for saying statements like these. I have experienced people responding viscerally when they learn about human trafficking and hear stories of the horrendous impact this crime has on individuals - mostly women and children. When individuals see evidence of injustice, emotional responses are often rooted in anger, disbelief, sadness, and fear.


At Nancy’s House, we recently put on our bulletin board a picture of a “feelings wheel.” It is similar to this one here, and this resource has helped me try to consider what individuals might be feeling beyond the surface emotions of “angry” or “sad.” When someone suggests that traffickers should be put to death, are they feeling furious? Judgemental? Or powerless? Or violated? 

When I speak to groups, I often don’t know the scope of what each individual might already know about human trafficking. I also am aware that at any given time, I likely have someone in the audience who has first-hand experienced sexual violence, if not trafficking. I think our responses to crime and injustice are deeply rooted in our own experiences and also our own values and belief systems.

As a Christian, I am spending time wondering how Jesus calls us to respond. What attitude or posture might he call us to - not just from a theological perspective, but also from a deep desire to see real change and difference?

Mishpat, one Hebrew word for justice, shows up more than 200 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Essentially, the meaning of this word is to treat people equitably. Mishpat is giving people what they are due, whether it is punishment for wrong doings or protection or care, giving people their rights. Often when mishpat is used in the Old Testament, it is in reference to marginalized and ostracized groups, like widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor, and our responsibility to ensure that they are being treated equitably and fairly. When I think about mishpat in this way, I’m not focusing on how I can knock others down to bring them to the same level of those who are being mistreated; I consider the ways marginalized individuals and groups should be elevated to receive the quality of care and belonging that God desires for us. When we only focus on punitive justice when unpacking mishpat, we ignore the emphasis in the Bible that includes justice for oppressed people.

What would happen if we shift this way of thinking into investing more into those who might be more inclined to exploit others? 

As Christians, we know we are called to care for the oppressed. The challenging question is, what does justice look like for the oppressor? 

This week I started reading the book Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Mercy, and Kindness by Cindy Wang Brandt. To illustrate her point that the best prevention method for healthy adults and communities is investing in early childhood intervention, Wang Brandt shared the story of Danish law enforcement officers who did not criminalize youth at risk of terrorism activities, but instead responded with resources for mentorship. “Justice” can take on many different forms, but I think it’s much more radical when we resist our visceral impulses to incarcerate people - put them out of sight, out of mind - and instead look for opportunities to address issues like adverse childhood experiences, generational trauma, poverty, and systemic racism. 

There is so much value in organizations that exist to support victims and survivors, but obviously it is more ideal to live in a world where people aren’t being harmed in the first place. Therefore, in the anti-trafficking movement, a lot of emphasis is placed on the need for prevention and awareness strategies to address human trafficking in an effort to protect people from becoming victimized at all. Yet, when it comes to our attitudes towards those who are perpetuating this crime, I see ways that our attitudes default to punishment and consequences - dare I say retribution? What would happen if we shift this way of thinking into investing more into those who might be more inclined to exploit others? 

There is a saying “hurt people hurt people.” I’ve heard anecdotal stories about traffickers and pimps who have experienced their own histories of trauma and hardship. And as Christ followers, we know that Jesus has mercy for them. The questions I have right now is: do we, and how do we show it?

Photo by Michael Fenton on Unsplash

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