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Bridging the Gap: The Challenges of Multi-Agency Cooperation in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

Norbert Leonhardmair
Thursday 21 December 2023

Bridging the Gap: The Challenges of Multi-Agency Cooperation in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

To effectively combat human trafficking multi-agency cooperation is imperative. However, cooperation faces challenges, particularly with respect to of cross-border and cross-sectoral coordination. Additionally, depending on the specific form of exploitation different actors need to be involved in identifying victims and implementing preventive measures.

Human trafficking operates at the intersection of various sectors, including law enforcement, immigration, social services, and NGOs. Coordinating efforts among these sectors is essential, yet it is plagued by bureaucratic hurdles and conflicting priorities. Law enforcement agencies may prioritize criminal prosecution, while social services may focus on victim support and rehabilitation. Bridging these disparate goals requires a holistic and nuanced approach.

Working in a multi-agency partnership is the most effective way to respond to THB at an operational and strategic level. Initial and ongoing training and organisational support and supervision are essential. The level of multiple engagement with services or agencies and organisations may be dependent on the circumstances or complexity of each individual case and its surrounding situation and the availability of services in the local area. Different services do not always communicate with each other, and are often not allowed to exchange information, partly for data protection reasons or professional secrecy, resulting in the lack of sharing information. Consequently, the victims must repeatedly provide their information, including details of their violent experiences to different people in different organisations. Recalling experiencing can itself be traumatic for victim-survivors and consequently may deter them from accessing support or continue their cooperation with the criminal procedures.

Fundamentally, different agencies and service providers have different organisational missions, visions, values, aims and objectives. They have different targets and tasks and may also have different rules, regulations and working mechanisms. This makes it difficult for professionals in these agencies to work together at the same pace. A lack of understanding of the role and responsibilities of staff and the different language used by individuals and organisations lead to challenges in working together.

For example, definitions and labels used to refer to the victim-survivor with various labels in operation including ‘victim’ or ‘witness’ (criminal justice system), ‘survivor’ (victim-centred organisations), ‘patient’ (healthcare services), ‘tenant’ (housing services), ‘service user’ (welfare agencies) or ‘customer’ (adults’ social care).

Various agencies use different tools and instruments to asses and report the risk. Data gathered by different agencies is not comparable due to variations in the type of data collected, ways it is recorded, data storage and lack of data portability mechanisms. There may also be different understandings of what constitutes THB, how it presents itself, and its impact among different organisations. Challenges of specialization or high staff turnover in organisations are further barriers and affect communication as it takes time for people to develop trusting relationships.

However, an understanding of the challenges of multi-agency working can help to identify components of successful multi-agency partnerships. For an effective multi-agency partnership, it is essential that all the partners have a clear and shared vision, clearly articulated and agreed goals, aims and objectives. It is equally important that the staff in all organisations are aware of the vision,

mission and goals of the partnership and have had the opportunity to clarify any misconceptions or questions. For any services, including multi-agency partnerships, to work effectively, it is important to understand the needs from the perspective of various stakeholders including victims, service providers as well as frontline practitioners providing services, to have respect for all cooperation partners and to meet them at eye level (despite power imbalances). Such an understanding may help identify concerns and issues affecting the provision of services and, thereby, help set priorities for the services.

It is essential to use a joined-up approach, where various agencies are working together in order to smartly and effectively provide services. Such an approach may, on the surface, not seem different from agencies working separately, but for victim-survivors and their children it can be beneficial as there will be less duplication of assessment, and provision of services would be integrated and efficient. An understanding and clarity of the roles of various professionals working in the multi-agency context is very important. Professionals in different organisations and diverse disciplines bring different but complementary expertise. The expertise, knowledge, and skills of a practice nurse will be completely different from those of a social worker. Similarly, a police officer brings a very different set of experience and knowledge than a THB counsellor.

There should be clear mechanisms and protocols for sharing information between agencies, and these should be promoted and monitored by management and supported by compatible IT (information technology) systems. Effective information sharing relies on open communication and collaboration and facilitates the use of a common language among various professionals. Provision of shared training events for various professionals is also a good strategy to bring people in one place to facilitate the development of a shared language and understanding of information sharing as integral in the response to THB.

Finally, the importance of monitoring, evaluation and auditing cannot be underestimated as it will help in identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges for the multi-agency partnership. Areas of improvement identified through such activities should be considered learning and improvement opportunities in which views of victim-survivors and all other stakeholders should be sought and incorporated.

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