Malaika Oringo, a mentor and an advocate against human trafficking, recently shared her experience in our Digital Series Mental Health & Human Trafficking. In 2019 she founded Footprint to Freedom, an NGO that has helped many victims and survivors that for so long have been ignored, silenced and unheard. Malaika travelled from Uganda to Europe, as a child, believing she would be studying abroad, but arrived to a completely different reality.
She eventually found a way out, and although speaking up about her history hasn't been easy, it has helped her to grow emotionally and empower others around her. Her emotional scars have become a source of inspiration in the fight against human trafficking as she continues to raise awareness. This brave woman is committed to supporting human trafficking survivors, refusing to view them just as victims, but focuses on a far more empowering perspective: that these individuals are fighters that look forward towards a better life. However, this is only possible with the correct treatment which enables them to heal properly from trauma. In this way, survivors are able to transcend their suffering, so they can start adapting again to society and build healthy and rich lives. It can be really tough for survivors, comments Malaika. When rescued, the victims are interviewed by police authorities, but often have only a few hours to tell their story. It is extremely challenging to open up and talk about such personal and painful experiences to a person one has only just met, especially within such a short time-frame. Additionally interviewers' biases around things such as their looks or nationality, can play against them. Sadly, they could potentially be criminalised and sent to jail or deported to their home country. Often these individuals are not treated humanely or fairly by the State authorities, and are condemned to unfair judgements and could even be re-traumatised. The little time that survivors are given to share their story with people they do not know or trust can make their rescue even harder. Their destination is uncertain, and the laws in place don’t allow them to work or go to school. Once again they are mistreated, only this time by the authorities that were supposed to protect them. This is just one of many reasons why it is so crucial that Human Rights are discussed even more, says Malaika. The policies for human trafficking at national and international levels need to be educationally informed to protect the victims, instead of criminalising them and prolonging their suffering. She believes that this is hugely important to raise the awareness around the long term mental health implications for victims, and that the survivors´ emotions and trauma must be treated adequately and sensitively by health professionals, psychiatrists or psychologists. The services need to be strong, the treatment fitting, and the follow-up long term to ensure survivor’s healthy recovery. Another challenge that the victims have to face is the lack of legal protection after being rescued. Their residency status often remains uncertain, and they have nowhere safe to stay in the country they have been trafficked to. In short, they are illegal and therefore criminals in the eyes of the law. According to Malaika the victims should be treated as victims and not as criminals. The first step towards this is simply believing them when they speak up, without discrimination due to their country of origin, religion or even how they may look. The Police and other such authorities need to be retrained and be trauma-informed; often services are not educated in the issues around human trafficking, and so are unable to offer the right support. The victims need not only food, shelter and emotional support but to restore their confidence in themselves and the people around them. This is something that needs a whole-society approach. This is all crucial in supporting them in the long journey of accepting their emotional wounds. Malaika mentioned that in less than a year she saw seven different therapists to help treat her emotionally. This itself is unacceptable given her vulnerability and need for stability. Trust and healing comes with time, but Malaika feels she never had enough time, and overall inadequate long-term follow up within her process. Specific treatments must be designed and provided to survivors of human trafficking to guarantee the best results. Survivors need to relearn to trust society and therapists are an important tool in this process. The Salvation Army was an organisation that invested in Malaika’s personal growth and helped her to reintegrate into society, and she finished her Masters degree despite obstacles with funding and her immigration status. However, it is not enough that voluntary organisations are responsible for helping survivors. This needs to become law at both national and international level, and integrated into the health and justice systems. Malaika continues to do extremely important work. She is expanding the community, and continues to connect with organisations all over the world to work towards eradicating human trafficking. Nowadays Malaika continues to raise awareness around the realities of human trafficking, not just in terms of her experiences, but also in what is required to help survivors after they have broken free. Currently she is living in Holland and is encouraging people to become involved in the field, especially in East Africa where she continues to work and campaign with new projects.
To finish, let us share some of Malaika’s final words during the episode.
“Human trafficking can happen to anybody regardless of your gender, age, where you come from or your economy background and when you help one victim or one survivor you help a hundred victims… all of us are connected and every little action makes a difference. Whatever you do is important, do not undermine your effort!”