October 20th, 2010

Q&A: Human trafficking is focus of cross cultural work

It shouldn’t happen but it does. Human trafficking is one crime that we imagine happens in the shadowy alleys or dirt poor towns of third world countries, where local police turn a blind eye or, worse, participate in the enslavement of millions. Men, women and children are kidnapped or, more commonly, enticed into traveling with the traffickers and find themselves being forced into prostitution or labor far from home with no options and no way of escape.

While it may be worse in other countries, it does, sadly happen here as well. With a promise of a job in the U.S., people are brought across the border and then put into virtual slavery – as prostitutes or doing manual labor – with no chance of earning their freedom. They are often coerced into believing that they have no options.

Michelle Contreras, M.A., is a doctoral student at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. A licensed psychologist in Guatemala, Contreras returned to the U.S., where she had spent 11 years with her family as a child, to continue her studies. After working with immigrants at a local community mental health center, Contreras was asked to join Project Reach, a mobile trauma center funded by the U.S. Department of Justice to provide consultation and mental health services to human trafficking victims across the country … and found her calling.

She spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about the need for psychology to get involved in the treatment of victims. With thousands of people brought into the country annually, it’s a nearly silent crime with victims who have such issues of trust that it can be difficult for them to accept help.

 Q: How big a problem is this?

A: We don’t have any set of numbers that we can rely on without doubt. It’s a population that moves so quickly because traffickers move their victims so it is very difficult to say how many are in the country.

The Department of State puts the number between 14,000 and 17,000 victims coming into the U.S. on a yearly basis. It’s something like 2 million worldwide.

It’s a hidden population and victim identification is one of the biggest challenges in the U.S.

 Q: Where does psychology fit in?

A: This is definitely an area where psychologists should be involved because traffickers lure people in by promising them things they are never going to give them and putting them in situations where the victim must depend entirely on the trafficker. These are very much psychological tactics. Once people figure out they have been tricked or deceived, then all the trust issues start to kick in.

 Q: What does Project Reach do?

A: Project Reach does cross-discipline trainings on the topic of human trafficking and the psychological impact. We are working with anyone who would work with a trafficking survivor at any point – from FBI investigators, to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who go in and conduct a raid to rescue survivors of human trafficking, to attorneys, social workers, medical personnel.

 We also work with survivors, mostly in the form of mental health evaluations.

Q: Were you working with survivors in Guatemala before you came back to the U.S.? How did you get involved in this field?

A: The Universidad Rafael Landívar, where I studied in Guatemala, is a Jesuit university that has a strong cultural and social justice focus. I became involved in going to parts of Guatemala that had been hit hard during the 36-year civil war [1960-1996] and the widespread genocide against the Mayan Guatemalan Indians. I went to a couple of the exhumation sites as a psychology student – being available to people who wanted to talk during the process of that exhumation. It’s a big deal because they might have 300 to 400 remains within one single burial ground. That brought my attention to all of the internal social issues and political and historical issues that had contributed to the outflow of Guatemalans to other parts of the world.

 When I came to the U.S., I thought I would be concentrating on working on my psychoanalytical training but what came more into the foreground was when I started working at the Latin American Health Institute as a case manager. I worked specifically with Latinos and with people who had tried to apply for political asylum or who had tried to enter the country under refugee status but had been denied. I was pulled in, drawn to this topic and I started helping with applications, writing affidavits trying to explain to immigration what their experience had been. Often times, people had these experiences and they don’t know how to explain it in a way that people here in this context would understand.

 When I was approached by Project Reach, it felt like the right place to go. It was a program that was doing in a systematic way what I was already doing in an informal way.

 Q: You are also planning to work on this topic in Guatemala?

A: For my doctoral project, I’m using a participatory action research methodology to collaborate with a group of providers who are working with human trafficking survivors in Guatemala. I’m bringing this group of people together, interviewing them and trying to establish what we are doing in Guatemala for survivors of human trafficking.

 Human trafficking is an international crime but if we understand about local trafficking movements in each country that can ultimately inform us about what is feeding into the international crime. It is a cross-cultural endeavor.

Q: Where does what you are looking at cross with law enforcements’ efforts? Obviously finding the people and stopping the trafficking have to come first.

A: When law enforcement is trying to help international victims one of their biggest roadblocks is trying to figure out how people are vulnerable within certain cultures. Establishing the vulnerabilities within the country is something that ultimately can help law enforcement.

 Another roadblock for law enforcement in Guatemala is the huge issue of trust. It’s not just that the law enforcement system doesn’t work but also that the law enforcement system has enacted abuses and is sometimes responsible for the human rights violations.

Q: Once you complete your doctoral degree, will you work primarily in the U.S. or return to Guatemala?

A: My plan is to move professionally between Guatemala and the U.S. I like the cross-cultural experience. It informs both sides of my work, trying to figure out how we can build a strong collaboration between mental health providers in the U.S. and Guatemala and engage in an exchange of information.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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