Malaika Oringo receving an award.

Malaika Oringo: “When telling survivors’ stories, choose humanity first and the story second”

Every year child migrants disappear in Europe, of which many fall victim to human trafficking. The portrayal of migrants in the news is often negative, but behind it are great strength and potential. This International Migrant’s Day, Mind the Children puts emphasis on shining a light on the strength of young people who migrate, and the fact that they are more then just migrants or victims. Today we speak to one of those voices, and an advocate for the position of survivors of human trafficking: Malaika Oringo.

When the news and politics talk about migrants, we often only hear the numbers, or see them only portrayed as victims. Malaika Oringo is a survivor of, and an advocate against, human trafficking and gender-based violence against women and girls. She is on a mission to stand up for victims’ rights and strengthen survivors’ inclusion and engagement. She is the founder of Footprint to Freedom, a survivor-led organization in the Netherlands. Oringo has highlighted gaps in European legislation and policy against human trafficking, and has advised on best practices that can provide trauma-informed and survivor-centered approaches to improve the response to survivors’ and victims’ needs.

When you arrived in the Netherlands, did you experience any relief or protection from the authorities?
“Yes, when I arrived from Uganda, 17 years ago, I was identified as a victim and got safety in a minor safe house, where I received the basic needs like food, clothes, and mental health support. Nevertheless, there were gaps in the services and in support I received. The first responders like law enforcers and shelter social workers were not trauma- or culturally-informed, and not victim-centered. It was very re-traumatizing and confusing.”

How do you feel you, and others who have had similar experiences, are perceived by the media and the general audience? Do you feel this is different when it is concerning minors or adults?
“It’s very absurd that the media relies upon emotional stories and eye-catching images when writing about victims’ and survivors’ stories, in order to raise awareness for the issues of human trafficking. Although this is essential, the images and language used to tell victim stories to some extent do not reflect who survivors are beyond their trauma. They don’t put humanity before the story.

For example, it’s not a common thing that survivors are told about what the possible impact of telling their story could be. When victims share their vulnerable stories, this can be a trigger for re-traumatisation if it’s done without self-care. Survivors should be informed about the psychological consequences, especially for minors. No survivor should be required to share any part of their story for public or promotional purposes. The survivors´ best interests and safety should always take precedent. Thus I call on the media who tell survivors’ stories, especially when it concerns minors, to choose dignity and humanity first, and the story second.”

What effect does the current portrayal have on survivors, and on the public opinion do you think?

“Survivors are often supported by people in social work, legal, and clinical contexts who ask them repeatedly to recount their personal stories. The retelling of these events can aggravate symptoms (PTSD), and re-traumatisation. When supporting a survivor with trauma, it’s imperative to put aside your ideas about the best ways to heal. Also it is important to be culturally- and trauma-informed, and give survivors agency.

The project ‘Don’t be lured by a false dream’ in Uganda, setting up a survivors advisory council that mediates and advises on the situation of trafficking of East African girls and women to the Middle East.

Also, it encourages ‘survivor porn’. This happens when survivors are asked by nonprofit organisations or media to provide the emotional hook for their trafficking story. Also, this has facilitated the fixation to rely on digging up the trauma of victims and survivors to invoke action and donations. The downside to this is that there is limited knowledge in understanding how survivors can experience several unexpected personal and emotional challenges in the aftermath of sharing their stories.

But because most organizations don’t realize the power dynamic and the power they hold over the victims, they unconsciously re-exploit victims because they assume that they have asked for their consent. However, it is questionable whether a victim or survivor can give proper consent about telling their story, since the victim or survivor is depending on the organisation in the process of their recovery.”

You are passionate about taking victims of human trafficking out of victim hood. What is driving you?
“In general, I have an inner desire to fight against social injustice and believe in the dignity and value of every human being, and fight for those who are not heard. Thus I decided to enter the anti-human trafficking field. I feel it’s my calling. Nevertheless, being a survivor of human trafficking myself, having regained my freedom 17 years ago, gave me more reason to advocate on behalf of survivors. I realized that freedom is more than the moment of exiting from slavery, freedom is rather an ongoing journey and a process that requires continuous support from all stakeholders including survivor leaders.

I believe my freedom is not worth having if it does
not include the freedom of others.

Malaika Oringo

Moreover, I joined this field because I believe my freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom of others. I use my experience to promote best practices, bridge policy gaps, and offer services to educate, inspire and empower. I turned a bad experience into something positive. Today, I’m using the pain from my past to lead others out of exploitation. I’ve given my invisible scars a place where it no longer hurts and have turned the pain into wisdom.”

How do you do this?
“I do this in different ways through my Foundation. I empower, inspire, and educate survivors to participate in prevention and reintegration of other survivors, and advocate for fair laws through public speaking and round table discussions. I also empower other survivors through coaching and mentorship and I train different stakeholders, like law enforcers, NGOs, and government officials, on different topics; including sex trafficking, survivor engagement, and ethical storytelling.

Read more on the website of Footprint to Freedom.