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Human Trafficking Center

Lessons from the Humanitarian Sector: The Applicability of the Sphere Project’s Protection Principles


Jan 2015



By Kate Castenson, HTC associate

While there are a plethora of counter-human trafficking NGOs, government task forces and international agencies, there is a lack of shared standards about how to protect victim-survivors[1] of human trafficking. Service providers with a psycho-social background may emphasize a “trauma-informed” approach, while law enforcement may adopt a demand reduction paradigm. Given the global scope of human trafficking and the need for cooperation across national and sectorial borders, it is time for these organizations to propose standards for best practices of victim-survivor protection.

The Sphere Project’s Protection Principles provide a useful model for the counter-human trafficking field’s efforts in accomplishing this task. Initiated in 1997 by a group of humanitarian NGOs and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the Sphere Project aimed to improve the quality of these actors’ disaster responses. One of the core beliefs of the Sphere Project is a right to life with dignity. The project resulted in a Humanitarian Charter that identified minimum standards for service provision as well as process standards to apply across these services. The project’s Protection Principles (listed below) could be a starting point for the counter-human trafficking movement’s attempt to draft protection principles tailored to the human trafficking field.

Protection Principle 1: “Avoid exposing people to further harm as a result of your actions.”

  • The imperative to take action against human trafficking can lead to the adoption of policies with negative consequences. The “raid and rescue” model embraced by some counter-sex trafficking organizations is a case in point. Although removing victims-survivors of sex trafficking from situations of exploitation seems like a sound policy at first glance, there are several potential problems with this model including forced detention/deportation of victim-survivors of sex trafficking, tension between sex workers and trafficked persons, and lack of access to health services and support services for sex workers.

Protection Principle 2: “Ensure people’s access to impartial assistance – in proportion to need and without discrimination.”

Protection Principle 3: “Protect people from physical and psychological harm arising from violence and coercion.”

  • Since human traffickers employ violence and/or coercion, it is especially important that service providers assisting victim-survivors of trafficking do not retraumatize the people they aim to assist by perpetuating physical or psychological harm. Anti-trafficking programs such as Project ROSE, which give victim-survivors little choice about aftercare programs, risk creating new psychological harm for victim-survivors.

Protection Principle 4: “Assist people to claim their rights, access available remedies and recover from the effects of abuse.”

  • A victim-centered approach to human trafficking empowers the victim-survivor to claim their rights by participating in the prosecution of their trafficker(s) or by pursuing other forms of justice. This approach also focuses on the recovery of the victim-survivor.

One of the first steps to establishing victim-survivor protection principles for the counter-human trafficking community would be to organize a meeting to discuss shared standards and draft a set of principles, preferably led by an international entity such as a UN agency. The principles would be subject to revision as best practices change. In the absence of such principles, however, the Sphere Project’s Protection Principles provide a useful point of reference for counter-human trafficking organizations and agencies seeking to craft an effective approach to victim protection.

Do you know of other models like the Sphere Project’s Protection Principles that might be a helpful resource for the counter-trafficking community in establishing standards for victim-survivor protection?

(Photo: A humanitarian observer interviews a man who has been displaced from his village near Paoua. Via Creative Commons)

[1] Victim-survivor is used interchangeably with victim and survivor.

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC


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