This is a guest blog from Wayne C. Tanaka, Esq, Legal Consultant at the Pacific Survivor Center and Dr. Nicole Littenberg, Medical Director at the Pacific Survivor Center. Views are not of USAID.

As global awareness about human trafficking grows, haunting images start to emerge in anti-trafficking campaign ads, documentaries, websites, and popular media portrayals.  Understandably, we begin identifying trafficking with a narrative of chains, armed thugs, and helpless victims held under purely physical duress. Almost unconsciously, we see the issue as “bad guys” who must be punished, “good guys” who deliver such punishment, and helpless victims who need to be “rescued”.  But human trafficking is not so simple; the phenomenon itself is as complex as it is pervasive, and once we start making innocent but simple assumptions that compartmentalize the phenomenon, the more likely that we will miss critical facts, dismiss relevant ideas, and stop asking the important questions.

For example, in the recent Aloun Farms labor trafficking case, Mike and Alec Sou’s defense attorneys emphasized that their alleged victims could have simply climbed a fence to “freedom” if they chose to. This approach spoke to a popularized narrative about human trafficking – one that requires physical restraints and violence for a “real” trafficking situation to exist. Those who work to address trafficking know that psychological coercion, socioeconomic and cultural exploitation, and legal vulnerabilities are very real tools used by traffickers to control their victims. But these ideas do not fit well into the narrative evoked by the defense.  It’s a good legal strategy, which reflects weaknesses in the sensationalized trafficking narrative.

Another strategy employed by the defense attorneys was to play into a narrative popularized by anti-immigrant advocates. By repeatedly emphasizing the “entitlements” awarded to certified victims of trafficking, the attorneys appeared to suggest the farm workers were “illegal aliens” who were attempting to obtain green cards by framing their boss.

Not surprisingly, juror statements favorable to the defense indicated that the use of such popularized narratives had a significant role in their understanding of the case. Given that the perspectives of policymakers, law enforcement, and the general public may just as easily be subject to the biases inherent in such sensationalized narratives, we all need to take a close look at our assumptions and stereotypes about trafficking and how these impede our work to address this crime.

One suggestion, an alternative, truer narrative, which more accurately portrays the full picture of trafficking—including its root causes and essential mechanisms—must include room for the stories of those most directly harmed by the phenomenon. Trafficking experts have long argued that if survivors are not given a voice, we may never fully understand the root causes of trafficking. And to give survivors a voice, we must also understand the systemic, cultural, and linguistic barriers faced by “rescued” survivors, who may also continue to bear physical, emotional, and financial scars of their experiences. Unfortunately, as funding for survivor-centered services continues to evaporate, the need for such a narrative only becomes more and more urgent.

The Aloun Farms trial was a lost opportunity to hear from the victims themselves. It also reflected the potential harms of sensationalized trafficking narratives that continue to pervade popular thought.  Only with a truer, contextually-sensitive narrative—one backed by survivors’ stories and survivor-centered advocacy—can we ensure the critical inquiries that human trafficking requires