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21 August 2020 | Podcasts | Article by Alan Collins

HJ Talks About Abuse: Modern day slavery – trauma bonding

Slavery has been very much in the media recently. Few must have missed the images of social-disorder and the toppling of statues broadcast on social and mainstream media, and the very heated arguments this generated. In the ensuing debates, attempts were made to focus attention on modern slavery.

Slavery tragically is alive and flourishing in the 21stcentury. It is happening as we speak and under our noses.

It is estimated that 40 million people globally are victims of modern slavery or trafficking. Over 70% of these people are women and girls, many of whom are trapped in sexual exploitation.

The Trafficking in Persons report 2020

The US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report is published annually and measures countries’ efforts to comply with the “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” based on a tier ranking system.

The United States considers “trafficking in persons,” “human trafficking,” and “modern slavery” to be interchangeable umbrella terms that refer to both sex and labour trafficking. It encompasses involuntary servitude, slavery or practices similar to slavery, debt bondage, and forced labour.

The US’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”) defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as:

“sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or the recruitment, harbouring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labour or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

A victim need not be physically transported from one location to another for the crime to fall within this definition.”

Here is a snapshot from the 2020 report and this is of course just an example and it’s from Guinea:

“As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Guinea, and traffickers exploit victims from Guinea abroad. Women and children are the most vulnerable to trafficking. Parents send girls to intermediaries who subject them to forced labour in domestic service and sex trafficking. Traffickers exploit boys in forced labour in begging, street vending, shoe shining, mining for gold and diamonds, in herding, fishing, and agriculture, including farming and on coffee, cashew, and cocoa plantations. Some government entities and NGOs allege forced labour within Guinea is most prevalent in the mining sector. Traffickers exploit men, women, and children in forced labour in agriculture. Reports indicate children are sent to the coastal region of Boke for forced labour on farms.”

Readers and listeners may rightly conclude that this is modern-day slavery.

In future podcasts, we will explore other issues arising from modern day slavery but in this episode, we discuss “trauma bonding”.

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Trauma Bonding

The 2020 report discusses the concept of trauma bonding and we use the Guinea example to help us appreciate it on a human level.

In human trafficking cases, the relationship between victim and trafficker may involve trauma bonding, a phenomenon that is beginning to receive, according to the 2020 report, increased attention. In research on the topic, trauma bonding is commonly referred to as “Stockholm Syndrome,” and the terms may be used interchangeably. “Stockholm Syndrome” is associated usually with kidnapping with the hostage forming a dependency like a relationship with their captors. However, there is no medical standard for diagnosis of either, nor any agreed-upon definition of trauma bonding. In addition, there is no definitive understanding of trauma bonding’s prevalence within trafficking situations and not all trafficking victims experience it. Current research is mostly limited to the United States and focused almost exclusively on sex trafficking of women and girls. These research gaps, again, according to the report, create uncertainty regarding the prevalence and full impact of trauma bonding on all human trafficking victims globally.

In “conventional” child sexual abuse cases albeit there is not, of course, anything remotely conventional but the point is we can and do see an emotional bond, which has enabled the sexual abuse of children, has served to protect the offender long after the abuse has ceased.

Although definitions vary, the most common meaning of trauma bonding is when a trafficker uses rewards and punishments within cycles of abuse to foster a powerful emotional connection with the victim. We might think of this as or call it “grooming”. Traffickers may take on a role as a protector (not unlike a kidnapper or child abuser who grooms his/her victim) to maintain control of the victim, create confusion, and develop a connection or attachment, which may include the victim feeling a sense of loyalty to or indeed love for the trafficker. This connection, or traumatic bond, becomes especially intense when fear of the trafficker is paired with gratitude for any kindness shown. Some argue that this is just natural adaptation but this does not sit easily with what we know about grooming in CSA. Additionally, trauma bonding, including in cases of trafficking, may occur within familial relationships in which the perpetrator could even be a parent which as we know can in itself cause considerable psychological damage.

In our Guinea example, we can, perhaps, relate to the victims’ desire to be safe and to have food and shelter. For these basic needs, they will be dependent on their captors, that is, their supposed employers. That dependency creates a “relationship” akin to master and slave.

Psychological coercion may increase the likelihood of trauma bonding. When a victim perceives a threat to their physical and psychological survival at the hands of their trafficker, trauma bonding may occur. Traffickers may isolate and threaten victims, induce exhaustion, and interfere with their believed or real ability to escape. A victim may eventually feel helpless and respond to any form of “help” or “kindness” from their trafficker with gratitude and attachment in order to survive.

To quote from the 2020 report:

Describing the bonding that occurs in the face of danger, psychiatrist and trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk explains, “Pain, fear, fatigue, and loss of loved ones and protectors all evoke efforts to attract increased care. When there is no access to…other sources of comfort, people may turn toward their tormentors.” Therefore, a victim’s social and economic circumstances may contribute to their developing a sense of trust and loyalty towards a trafficker. For example, lack of access to housing, healthcare, employment, income, education, or asylum may increase the likelihood of a trauma bond developing.

Author bio

Alan Collins


Alan Collins is one of the best known and most experienced solicitors in the field of child abuse litigation and has acted in many high profile cases, including the Jimmy Savile and Haut de la Garenne abuse scandals.  Alan has represented interested parties before public inquiries including the Independent Jersey Care Inquiry, and IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse).

Internationally, Alan works in Australia, South East Asia, Uganda, Kenya, and California representing clients in high profile sexual abuse cases. Alan also spoke at the Third Regional Workshop on Justice for Children in East Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok hosted by Unicef and HCCH (Hague Conference on Private International Law).

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.


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