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Nurses vital to tackling human trafficking, ICN congress told

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The fight against modern slavery will be lost unless nurses are empowered with the knowledge and tools to support the efforts, an humanitarian expert has warned. 

The caution came from Cindy McCain, a leading voice of the topic from the US, on the final day of the International Council of Nurses’ congress in Singapore this week. 

“We need nurses and it is up to us and all of you to get at the table”

Cindy McCain

Addressing more than 5,000 nurse delegates from around the world, Ms McCain, co-chair of the Arizona Governor’s council on human trafficking, highlighted the importance of nurses receiving training on how to spot the red flags for human trafficking, a form of modern slavery in which people are traded for the purpose of exploitation such as forced labour or prostitution. 

Issuing a “call to action”, Ms McCain, who is also board chair of the McCain Institute for International Leadership think tank, and widow of former US senator, John McCain, said: “You are on the frontlines; you are leaders and opinionators; unless you are educated on signs of human trafficking, we won’t win this.”

She added: “It is critical we put human trafficking assessment tools in the hands of as many health practitioners as possible.”

Her talk took place on the same day that the ICN launched a new pamphlet called ‘Human trafficking, the basics of what nurses need to know’, which describes the types of human trafficking, general signs to look out for, and which actions to take if human trafficking is suspected.

Speaking alongside Ms McCain was Kevin Hyland, member of the Council of Europe independent group of experts for trafficking and former independent anti-slavery commissioner for the UK.

“Nurses are well positioned to identify signs in suspected human trafficking victims”

Howard Catton 

During the session Mr Highland asked Ms McCain why nurses were absent from some of the decision-making processes and discussions on the subject of human trafficking.

She replied: “It is ignorance, in my opinion, on the part of change-makers. We need nurses and it is up to us and all of you to get at the table.”

Mr Hyland highlighted the prevalence and nature of human trafficking and how the nursing profession could develop strategies to identify victims and increase prevention by looking as the matter as a public health issue.

A recent global report on human trafficking launched by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) showed that while the number of convictions for human trafficking was increasing, two out of every five countries covered by the UNODC document had not recorded a single conviction.

ICN chief executive Howard Catton said nurses had a “duty to protect those in danger” and report any concerns about human trafficking to the authorities.

“Nurses are on the frontlines of health, caring for the most vulnerable populations, particularly in primary health care settings,” said Mr Catton.

“They are well positioned to identify signs in suspected human trafficking victims, both physical, such as physical abuse and malnourishment, and mental, such as submissiveness, confusion, fear and lack of self-esteem,” he added.

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