Overlooked and under-served: the male victims of human trafficking

The visit in Seville offered an opportunity to reflect on the fact that men and boys make up a significant proportion of trafficked persons, yet they go unreported.

18 MAY 2022

As part of the Next to You consortium meeting in Seville on 5-6 April, the project partners visited a shelter for trafficked men managed by Fundacion Cruz Blanca (FCB). Like FCB, Payoke is one of the few NGOs in Europe offering accommodation and support to adult male victims of human trafficking.  

The visit offered an opportunity to reflect on the fact that men and boys make up a significant proportion of trafficked persons, yet they go unreported. 

There are systemic barriers to assisting potential male survivors:

  • In many countries, programs established to assist trafficking victims only cater to women.
  • Many male victims are unwilling to speak out, silenced by fear and gender stereotypes such as “tough men can’t be victims.”
  • The lack of discussion and research on male victims of trafficking seems to convey the notion that the phenomenon does not affect men or that it is not as dire of a situation as it is for women.
  • Evidence shows that trafficked men face the same trauma and exploitation as females but are frequently overlooked. Trafficked boys and men experience the same vulnerabilities as girls and women, such as income, discrimination, housing and job insecurities, abuse, and domestic violence.
  • The notion that trafficked men are all labor trafficking victims is a myth. Men are often associated with trafficking for labor exploitation, whereas sex trafficking is seen as a crime affecting women and girls exclusively. While that is often the case, evidence shows that the number of men and boys falling victims to sex trafficking is on the increase.
  • Few support programs provide specialized assistance to men, especially safe housing and gender-sensitive psycho-social counseling. In the absence of specialized reception centers, male survivors are often accommodated in homeless shelters, which are inadequate for traumatized people.
  • Common assumptions about gender and migration contributed to the view that female migrants who are exploited are easily considered trafficked. In contrast, male migrants who faced the same violations and abuse are seen more commonly as irregular migrants whose migration plan failed. As a consequence, authorities and service providers often fail to recognize male victims due to bias or the tendency to perceive men as less vulnerable to trafficking.
  • In public opinion, when it comes to illegal work, men are viewed more as accomplices than victims. The survivors themselves often believe that their agreement to go abroad makes them complicit with their trafficker.
  • The intersection between labor violations, labor exploitation, and human trafficking can be blurred, and exploitation can be addressed differently from country to country. In certain legal contexts, trafficking for economic exploitation can easily fall under the radar.
  • Men are often ashamed to return home to their families without money. Failure to earn money for the family leaves many survivors with feelings of shame, to the point that they would rather expose themselves to additional exploitation rather than access support and “admit defeat”.
  • Similarly, some victims will rather endure even the most abusive conditions for long periods of time in an effort to keep their promise to send some money home rather than seek help to escape the exploitative situation.

Too often, men and boys suffer in silence. We believe we can empower survivors to find their voices by offering tailored support, pushing out the stigma surrounding male trafficking, and lobbying for more resources and safe spaces devoted to them.

As victim support organizations and advocates, we can:

  • Lobby for funding to provide comprehensive and culturally appropriate assistance to meet men and boys’ needs without detracting from, or minimizing the need for services for women and girls.
  • Expand and challenge the narrative of human trafficking, in language and portrayal, to include men and boys.
  • Offer a safe place where males can share their stories of violence or abuse, without being exposed to the traditional perceptions of masculinity.
  • Advocate for safe housing. 
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