Trauma – the scars of modern slavery

Individuals who have become victims of human trafficking and exploitation carry experiences of violence, abuse, fraud and degradation. Those who hardly know anything other than poverty, fear and the feeling of worthlessness quickly lose hope for a better nonviolent life. Many of those affected by human trafficking and prostitution lack the belief that they can have a better life. But even for those who find courage and strength and decide to leave, hurdles and difficulties await.

The greatest hurdle apart from the fear of a chance on the legal job market is the multiple traumas that those affected carry as invisible scars.


We humans experience trauma as a result of events that expose us or those close to us to the danger of death or injury to our body, or to the violation of our psychological integrity. The events are traumatic when they are experienced as threatening by the affected person. The experience is characterised by fear, horror, helplessness and failure.

‘The traumatic stress includes not only the trauma itself, but also the events that take place at a later point in time in connection with the trauma.’ Affected people who come to HOPE FOR THE FUTURE would like to go their own way towards an alternative professional future and have to do so with all the scars and injuries that their past has brought with it.

Stories of affected people like those of JoanaSusanInes and others show how many different traumatic experiences the survivors must face while on their path to a non-violent future free from exploitation.


Psychology distinguishes between two types of trauma: those that come about as a result of a decisive event such as an accident, the death of a loved one or a disaster, and relational traumas that cause massive shocks to the self and the structures of attachment. The second form is much more complex, can stay with those affected for a longer period and can be more serious with more impact.

Even if the exploiters and oppressors no longer have any contact to the survivors of human trafficking or prostitution, the invisible scars remain. Those affected continue to experience many restrictions in their daily life due to the traumas. Individuals suffer from terrible memories, tormenting nightmares, or random flashbacks that are accompanied by overwhelming emotions and physical sensations. A persistent basic fear and the expectation of being threatened or manipulated are constant companions in the experience of those affected – every single day.


The impact of the traumatic stress is serious. The traumatised have difficulties controlling their emotions and, if only looked at the reactions from the outside, often react inappropriately. However, these response patterns can be explained by their past and the coping strategies they have experienced in response to the violent and humiliating acts of their oppressors. These strategies were appropriate and necessary in their previous lives, but they are often inadequate and of little help in the new environment.

Trauma changes people’s self-perception. They think of themselves as worthless and develop the idea that they are to blame for their injuries. Your attitude to life is marked by hopelessness and despair. They hardly manage to feel joy and find it extremely difficult to maintain closeness and social relationships. The traumatisation has an immediate effect on the brain, an increased cortisol level is followed by an increased level of arousal. The constant level of fear and excitement interferes with the performance of the brain and the emotional experience. A feeling of self-ineffectiveness spreads, joy and a sense of achievement are hardly possible. If there is additional experience of stress, the person freezes, incapable of acting or suffers a complete breakdown.


 People who come to HOPE FOR THE FUTURE have already dared to take the most important step into their new future, but great challenges await them. The workshop and work integration programme at HOPE FOR THE FUTURE offers framework conditions that consider the traumatic past of those affected. For the first time in a long time, clients can experience autonomy, competence and a feeling of belonging. They can experience that they have the power to actively make decisions for themselves and that they have the power to make a difference. In addition to that, the survivors feel that they finally belong somewhere and that they are valued.

Even if it is primarily about learning to sew, for example, it is also always about creating an environment for the clients, in which they not only feel safe, but also have a safe haven where their wishes and needs are met with respect. There are always opportunities for breaks and discussions if necessary. The clients are accompanied by social workers.  

The workplace can be experienced as a safe place and must be organised in a structured and predictable way for the traumatised people. There must be clarity about what is happening, why, and how personal needs and wishes are accommodated. This ensures that those affected make experiences beyond exploitation and violence and that their way of experiencing situations is slowly and step by step balanced. This helps them to believe in their self-efficacy, their worth and their integrity again.

Translated by Sophie Kitchen