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Human Trafficking Center

Considerations When Interviewing Trafficking Victim/Survivors


Apr 2015



by Jennifer Hankel, Associate Director of Research

Interviews with victims/survivors of human trafficking is an especially salient way to gain information on a first-hand basis to help inform policy and social service provision. Interviews also pose critical ethical considerations related to the interviewee’s agency.

As defined, agency is the capacity or ability of an individual to assert power over their decisions. Honoring this agency, all human subject research have oversight of an Institutional Review Board which ensures research adheres to non-maleficence, beneficence, justice, and autonomy.

Alongside these principles, most research directly or indirectly involving human participants is also required to consider informed consent, privacy and confidentiality, trauma and risk, and empowerment.

Informed Consent

Informed consent is a pre-interview measure ensuring participants understand all aspects of the interview. It is often presented as a tangible form to be read and signed by the interviewee. In appropriate circumstances, informed consent may also be verbal. As with all at-risk populations, interviewers need to take special precautions to ensure they obtain genuine informed consent.

Informed consent may provide information about the interview questions, purpose of the study, and location of the interview so that participants understand what is being asked of them and what their rights are throughout the interview process. This information should be available in a diversity of forms to ensure it is fully comprehended. 

Interviewers should continually make informed consent and research project information available prior to the time of interview. In doing so, interviewers present numerous opportunities for participants to voice fear, hesitance, and questions. With each of these opportunities, participants have the chance to end the pre-interview process if they wish.

If the participant chooses to begin the interview process, they need to be told they may exit the interview at any time without being subjected to negative consequences.  

Privacy & Confidentiality

Privacy refers to the commitment of keeping interviewee information within the power and control of the participant. Confidentiality is primarily concerned with maintaining anonymity of interviewer information and ensuring their responses are not shared as connected directly to their person.

Interviewers should collect only relevant information and be cautious when asking questions about sensitive topics like the details of sexual practices, immigration status, or political affiliations. Unless directly related to the purpose of the interview, these types of questions may present legal implications or ethical dilemmas for interviewers. Requesting unnecessary, detailed private information runs the risk of alienating interviewees who may feel increasingly vulnerable and uncomfortable.

Information collected from the interview – including notes, pictures, and recordings – must be kept in a secure location. Safe information-sharing policies and practices should be established prior to the interview. It is important these considerations are clearly outlined prior to research due to potentially harmful implications for sharing participant information inappropriately. These practices might include information-sharing agreements among partners or requiring all staff to undertake confidentiality training.

Identifying information should be completely separate from interview data to ensure participants are not later identified against their will. Identity information could include addresses, phone numbers, names, employer information, dates (births, deaths, traumatic events), or the name of the nonprofit from which they received services. Inappropriately identifying participants results in further trauma because it denies victim/survivors the right to tell their stories in their own words and timing.

Trauma & Risk

Trauma is a common physiological reaction many victim/survivors experience during and after exploitation increasing their risk during the interview process.

Questions, location, timing, interviewer demographics, and other features of the interview must be structured in such a way as to avoid asking participants to relive traumatic experiences. Victim/survivors are likely to have experienced physical violence, intense manipulation, or feelings of powerlessness. Demanding participants communicate these memories may trigger potent negative emotions and cause strong physiological distress.

Interviewers must also ensure they are fully prepared to respond to participants’ emotional or physiological reactions to triggering interview topics. Appropriate help could include having the phone number for a crisis hotline, emergency medial facilities, or anti-trafficking experts.

Interviewers must also plan interviews that take place in neutral locations to ensure physical safety. Victim/survivors of trafficking may be at risk for violent retaliation from traffickers, gangs, or other groups. These possibilities pose risks for both the interviewee and the interviewer(s) who may be targeted if seen exchanging information.


Empowerment is crucial when working alongside communities and individuals who have experienced violence, oppression, or various forms of trauma.

It is critical that interviewers conduct processes from an empowerment or participatory action orientation. In other words, interviewers must take age, gender, and diversity indicators like culture and ethnic background into consideration to promote healthy and balanced interview relations. Having experienced potent loss of control over their physical space, person-hood, or property, victim/survivors will be sensitive to power dynamics between the interviewers and themselves.

Photo: Via Creative Commons 

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