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Voices From the Field: Iveta Cherneva

This interview is from our "Voices From the Field" series, which explores career paths in human trafficking prevention, research, and activism.

Name: Iveta Cherneva

Current Position: Director of consultancy firm ICWords Ltd., Author on human trafficking

Location: Bulgaria

Background: Iveta Cherneva got involved in the field after her cousin was trafficked—and escaped. She has worked for the UN, the U.S. Congress, and Oxford University, and is the author of Trafficking for Begging: Old Game, New Name, the first book to reveal how beggars are exploited as a form of human trafficking.

How did you get involved in the anti-trafficking field?

Years ago, a cousin of mine was trafficked from to Bulgaria to Greece. His escape story is movie-worthy. He pretended to be very sick, got access to the doctor’s office where all the passports were held, managed to take his passport, and then ran all the way to the Bulgarian-Greek border for a day through the fields.

What are some of the challenges you face in your line of work? How do you keep going with your work when human trafficking is such an immense problem?

I write and raise awareness about human trafficking. My work would be more dangerous if I was investigating crimes and saving trafficking victims—these are the professionals who face reprisals and real danger to life. My role—raising awareness and spearheading public discussion—is not life-threatening, yet we need to keep going.

What do you think is the biggest myth about human trafficking that exists today?

Myth #1 is that sex trafficking only occurs with young women. Trafficking can occur with virtually any group, any gender, within any commercially profitable context.

Myth #2 is that those responsible are only organized criminals from some poverty-stricken rogue country. Those responsible for trafficking can be very highly positioned officials within the political elites—there have been plenty of scandals implicating U.S., European, and UN high-level officials, military staff, and politicians running or aiding trafficking rings.

Can you tell us a little bit about your book?

Trafficking for Begging looks into the exploitation of beggars as a form of trafficking. I ask the question, “Why do we give money to beggars?” and try to address that with psychological explanations, which can lead us to ways of curbing and eliminating the activity. If we understand why people give money to beggars, we can figure out what to do to discourage the crime. When the activity is no longer profitable, traffickers give up.

Should one ever give money to beggars? Some of my colleagues always insist on giving food, especially if it's children, and others say no way. 

Giving food is always the better option. In the case of trafficking, the money doesn't go to the beggar anyways. Of course, not all beggars on the street are trafficking victims, so by opting for food you can be sure you are helping someone—whether they are a trafficking victim or not—without funding a criminal activity.

What was the most powerful moment for you, when you realized your research is making an impact?

When I saw that my first article on human trafficking for begging was listed as the source on child begging alongside two UN agencies on Wikipedia, I stopped for a second and thought to myself, “Okay, so we are getting somewhere, the work is getting noticed.” In terms of policy, in 2007 I founded the first compliance program on trafficking for private military contractors in cooperation with the U.S. Administration and Congress, so when the legal contracting clause came into force and the ethical codes of conducts on defense contracting got amended, I thought to myself, “Okay, we are getting somewhere, let's keep going.”

What tips can you give recent grads or young professionals who want to get involved in the anti-trafficking field?

Be very careful if you’re going to approach trafficking victims directly for research or journalism. Be very careful not to put them in harm’s way because they will suffer reprisals when traffickers see them speaking to strangers. Secondly, I would advise them to think about the funding of their projects first. You still need to live and pay the bills. Do think about how you will fund what you do.

Thankfully, there are fellowships that help you start off. I myself started with a human rights fellowship as a William Donner Human Rights Fellow in 2007—my first paid job. Look for the opportunities—they are out there. Thirdly, your professors are an immense resource. Consult them and let them help you with your first career steps.

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