ECPAT Norway is an organisation working to prevent the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children. We are part of the ECPAT international network which includes 122 partner organisations in 104 countries all working to prevent the exploitation of children. Children’s rights, voices and experiences, especially victims and survivors, are at the heart of our work at ECPAT Norway. Importantly, this has been enshrined in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the international human rights treaty which sets out the rights every child has – rights to protection from abuse to the provision of services and support to them and to participation in everything that affects them. We advocate a victim and survivor centric approach to ensure that we are effective in achieving the rights of children as set out in the UNCRC – which necessitates best interests of the child impact assessments of systems and legislation. This opinion piece clarifies what this approach means, why it is often not achieved in practice and how this methodology can guide the systems developed to work with victims and survivors of trafficking and exploitation, especially children.
What Is A Victim/Survivor Centric approach?
A victim/survivor-centred approach means placing the needs and priorities of victims/survivors of exploitation or trafficking at the forefront of any response.1 Rather than being positioned on the periphery or developed as an afterthought or a third party within any system, their rights and needs should hold a central position. Planning, design and delivery of coordinated responses should include a systemic focus on the interests of victims and survivors. They should maintain the agency of the individual within any procedures, so their aims and interests are not provided to them, objectively, by those in charge. In contrast the victim or survivor is considered a subject in the process, rights holders whose interests and wishes should be influential to decision makers.
The renowned Norwegian criminologist, Nils Christie, has recognised the third party role of victims in the midst of criminal justice processes, considering the theft of conflicts which occurred through justice procedures, in which the entire process is taken or ‘stolen’ from the victim by other stakeholders.2 In this manner the victims hold no influence and their position, if they are allowed to participate at all, will be as witnesses often only called in by the prosecution of the defence to help their arguments. In contrast a victim centric procedure provides victims within influence over the process, ensuring their wishes are carefully considered. It is not merely within criminal justice procedures that this lack of influence arises – this occurs within many forms of support programmes in which the wishes of the victims and survivors are not adequately listened to or they may be overlooked or not followed.
Ensuring systems are victim-centric requires allowing victims the opportunity to be included at the initial setting up stages – involving victims in designing what the procedures should include and the nature of the support/services given. In relation to victims of trafficking, this should include managing expectations so victims are fully informed at the initial stage what nature of support is available and have a clear picture of their legal rights.
The idea of achieving increased victim centric programmes and procedures has become an important buzz word term – witnessed at national, regional and international levels. Many domestic jurisdictions, especially in common law countries, have begun to update their practice to ensure victims hold greater influence over the procedures, witnessed for example through the use of victim impact statements.3 At regional levels the increased positioning of victims is witnessed through the current discussions at the European Union surrounding compensation for victims. The EU Strategy on Victims’ Rights (2020-2025) is based upon a two strand approach: ‘empowering victims of crime and working together for victims rights.’4 The Inter American Court of Human Rights has been celebrated as a victim centric court due to the nature of remedies in its judgements which carefully take into account the interests of victims.5 At the international level, with the establishment of the International Criminal Court, ensuring justice for victims has been described as the central mandate of the court.6 At the UN victim centrality has been recognised as a key principle in a wide range of areas including child protection and in programmes designed to support women and girls who have suffered from sexual abuse during armed conflict.7 Additionally, survivors voices at ECAPT International have been recognised as a key priority to be heard, to ensure they receive justice and also as an important tool to prevent further trafficking or exploitation.8
Why is this not achieved in practice?
Current victim centric or survivor centric approaches seek to overcome previous limitations with their problematic lack of consultations. Victims are recognised as rights holders, including the right to be heard. There will be greater consultations with victims to provide them with this opportunity to voice their opinions and they form part of the processes and procedures being developed to support them. Yet even with these improved measures, the needs and rights of victims and survivors are still not adequately being met.
One of the key challenges in establishing is truly victim and survivor centric approach is that there is not one collective approach or voice under which everything can follow – no one size fits all. The experiences of victims and survivors will be different and the forms of support which they require needs to be flexible and be able to meet the victims and survivors ‘where they are’. As Nils Christie details, ‘being a victim is not a thing, an objective phenomenon. It will not be the same to all people in situations externally described as being the “same.” It has to do with the participants definition of the situation. Some will see victory (I dared to participate) where others see victims (I was cheated)’.9
In the work of ECPAT Norway, to prevent child sexual exploitation and trafficking, we have detailed a number of specific measures in which the victim-centric approach is not living up to its mandate. Our recent report analysing Norwegian case law demonstrates that this occurs in a number of instances – from a lack of identification, removing the potential for support or justice, for victims in child sexual abuse material cases, to inadequate provision of support for victims of Norwegian offenders who are in jurisdictions outside Norway.10 In addition, the current Global Boys initiative by ECAPT international highlights the challenges in achieving recognition of their victimhood for older boys who have suffered exploitation.11 As such they will not receive the necessary support which an ‘Ideal’ victim would be provided with.12
How to achieve a victim and survivor centric approach in the prevention of child trafficking and sexual exploitation of children?
Individual victims and survivors are rights holders, with individual voices and need to have agency in the midst of the process designed to support or work with them. Working with child victims, it is essential that the voice of each child is carefully listen to – in an age-appropriate manner and where the child feels safe. This is in keeping with Article 12 of the UNCRC. This requires that all professionals are trained to comprehend and respond to the wishes of the victim or survivor. Systems must be put into place that can be flexible, offering a variety to measures that will meet the different interests of the individuals.
One crucial point in the victim and survivor centric approach is recognising that for children who have been sexually exploited and/or trafficked there are a variety of factors which can prevent them from being able to provide a clear picture of their wishes. In situations in which children have been sexually exploited they may be reluctant to discuss what they have experienced. Unfortunately, often in these situations their witness statements provide a key piece of evidence in prosecuting offenders. Importantly therefore the first point of contact must understand how to communicate with the child as this will establish a trust relation with authorities, or if approached badly can damage the potential for a positive relationship with authorities. Additionally, recognising the trauma which child experience recounting the abuse, any structured interview, we recommend following the barnehus model, should be carried out once and by experts who ensure there is no risk of the child being asked leading questions so they can detail events once in a clear manner in a safe environment.13
In relation to child victims of trafficking, the EU Strategy on Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings (2021-2025) has reinforced the need for early identification of victims – this is necessary to ensure victims receive assistance, support and protection, as well as increasing the potential for the successful investigation and prosecution of traffickers.14 The specific challenges and vulnerabilities of child victims of trafficking necessitate a comprehensive ability of those official involved with the child to be able to understand and respond to the needs and interests. whether in the midst of criminal proceeding or in the provision of appropriate, long term, victim centred therapeutic support. In this area ensuring the practice follows victim and survivor centric methodologies requires that the victims receive the support they require, whether or not they are part of a criminal prosecution. Authorities should approach victim with dignity and respect, ensuring all professionals are trained and understand the best practice in how to address the specific needs and circumstances experienced by victims and survivors of trafficking.