Thursday, April 19, 2012

Survivors and the Stockholm Syndrome: Why Some Love and Defend The Ones Who Trafficked Them

My friends would say I'm an even-keeled, hard-to-bother guy. My "Things That Make My Blood Boil" list has always been pretty short.

It was four years ago that human trafficking barged its way to the top of that list, and I still react intensely to every story I hear. My heart screams "INJUSTICE!!!!"; I feel a deep sadness for the suffering, and a fiery anger toward the calloused, arrogant manipulation that has wreaked havoc on yet another person's life. I don't know that I'll ever get over how dark and wrong and destructive and widespread it is.

Given that, perhaps you can imagine my shock in some recent conversations in which the topic turned to a survivor defending (even speaking fondly of) the one who had pimped her, describing a situation that was known to be horrific as if it wasn't that bad and/or struggling to cooperate with law enforcement and press charges.

WHAT?!? Really? How could that be?

Flipping the psychological switch
In 1973, two machine gun-blasting criminals took four hostages in a bank in Stockholm, Sweden, strapped them with dynamite and held them in a vault for six days. After their rescue, the hostages' attitudes shocked the world: in that short time, they had developed an emotional bond with their captors, and had come to fear those trying to rescue them. One of the female hostages later became engaged to one of the captors, and another started a defense fund to help with the captors' legal fees. And here, a label was born: the Stockholm Syndrome.

While the term is relatively young, the dynamics have been recognized for much longer and observed across the spectrum of abusive relationships: abused children with their parents, battered women with their husbands/boyfriends, prisoners of war with their captors, etc. For my purposes here, I'll speak of it as a female captive relating with a male captor. Somewhere in the course of her captivity, a psychological switch is flipped, a defense mechanism in which she starts siding with the captor to protect herself against the violence she fears. She starts blocking out all the things that are horrific and magnifying, even idolizing, any small acts of kindness. She starts feeling a certain fondness for him, sometimes to the point that she may resist rescue and refuse to press charges. It happens often enough that hostage negotiators keep it on the front burner as something they have to watch for and play right so it doesn't hinder the rescue process.

Trafficking survivors and the Stockholm Syndrome
My point in writing isn't to say that every trafficked person ends up with some version of the Stockholm Syndrome. Rather, I'm opening a window into one of the many challenges involved in providing aftercare for survivors.

Let's say a woman is lured into the United States from another country, trafficked and then gets out of it somehow. The US government has made provision for foreign-born survivors through what's called a T-visa for her to stay, work and receive care in the US for a few years IF she helps with the investigations and prosecution involved in her case. If she doesn't cooperate, that can jeopardize her visa status, except when there is severe psychological trauma. Well, if Stockholm Syndrome is part of the picture, she's probably not going to cooperate; in that case, what qualifies as "severe psychological trauma"? In my opinion, Stockholm Syndrome certainly should. It's not so easy though: it can show itself simply as an unwillingness to cooperate; many of those being asked to cooperate are in their late teens; it's not uncommon for someone in their late teens to be belligerently uncooperative....perhaps you can see the dilemma.

Beyond that, it presents significant challenges in restorative care. Is it our job to guide her away from the Stockholm Syndrome? Can she move towards health and restoration without being convinced right away that what happened was unjust? Will she be willing to let go of ungrounded feelings as she gradually regains perspective? As she re-connects emotionally with what really happened, will she be devastated, and will she allow us to walk with her through it?

When we "signed up" for aftercare, we knew it would rarely be easy. But we carry a strong hope that regardless of how deep the wound, healing and restoration can really happen.

We deeply appreciate your support.

Bob Atherton is Amirah's Executive Director of Operations.


  1. this is a great article Bob! Explains the complexity of what we are up against in such a clear way; nothing however is impossible with God.

  2. Thank you Bob. You're getting to the heart of an issue in which I have a very strong interest and dedication - the psychological rehabilitation of victims of torture and trafficking. Thank you for shedding light on this facet of their trauma. With God's help, let's help them, one soul and body at a time.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this post.
    Psychologist in Atherton