Human Trafficking:
What You Need To Know

By Callie Wixon
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January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Help spread awareness by educating yourself and others and by promoting a culture in which women and girls are not exploited.

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is a crime involving compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services or to engage in commercial sex acts. Coercion can be subtle or overt, physical or psychological, and exploitation of a minor for commercial sex is always considered human trafficking–regardless of whether any form of force, fraud, or coercion was used. Within the category of human trafficking, labor trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, or obtaining of a person for labor or services for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude or slavery. And while “sex trafficking”–also called “commercial sexual exploitation”–is often used interchangeably with “human trafficking,” it is distinct in that it specifically involves commercial sex, not other forms of labor.

How common is human trafficking?

The International Labor Organization estimates that in 2016, 4.8 million people were trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally (and 15.4 million in forced marriages). It is impossible to know truly how large the number is because of trafficking’s underground nature, but the Department of Defense calls human trafficking the fastest growing crime in the world.

Who is being trafficked?

71% of human trafficking victims are women and girls.

Human trafficking victims can be any age, race, social standing, or gender. The common denominator of who is targeted by traffickers, specifically sex traffickers, is vulnerability. Most victims are young girls and often they are vulnerable in other ways: girls experiencing homelessness or with bad home lives, girls with unstable incomes, and girls who are also victims of sexual or domestic abuse.

Who are the buyers?

It is hard to determine an estimate of the amount of people participating as consumers in human trafficking. However, we do know that trafficking operates on supply and demand, meaning that since the human trafficking business is growing, the supply is only increasing because demand is.

Who are the traffickers?

While men are heavily involved, women participate in trafficking as well. In fact, 38% of trafficking suspects are women. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported in 2015 that women highly involved in trafficking are often in roles interrelating with trafficking victims, such as women traffickers recruiting other women as victims.

A recent report from World Without Exploitation providing in-depth statistics about human trafficking shows that victims are often trafficked by people they know and trust–16% of children trafficked in upstate New York were trafficked by parents or other family members. Also common are romantic partners forcing or manipulating victims into prostitution: 23% of young women prostituted in Chicago considered their pimp to be their boyfriend. Moreover, 95% of pimps use coercion and threats, primarily economic, psychological, or chemical coercion. Used less often–but still used–are physical and sexual violence. 

Where is trafficking happening?

Human trafficking is most common in cities, on interstate highways, and in airports. A shocking 71% of labor trafficking victims are brought into the U.S. by plane, making airports major trafficking hubs. Top venues for sex trafficking specifically, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s 2018 statistics, are spa and illicit massage businesses, hotels, and on the internet (as pornography and back-page advertisements).

With Super Bowl LIV scheduled in Miami for this upcoming weekend, more attention has been directed to human trafficking recently as the Super Bowl has been referred to in the past as “the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.” However, there is much speculation about the Super Bowl’s (and other events attracting large numbers of visitors from out of town) prominence in human trafficking with varying opinions on the topic and little research to prove its role in sex trafficking.

What are the signs of trafficking?

The trafficking situations affecting victims can present themselves in drastically different ways. In circumstances of both labor and sex trafficking, workers can have poor mental or physical health or exhibit abnormal behavior. Trafficking victims may have only few personal possessions and a lack of control over their lives and/or income, be frequently monitored, and often not speak for themselves. Be on alert for these common signs of human trafficking:

  • Working uncommon (and/or unusually long) hours
  • Receiving unlawful pay or indirect pay
  • Workers living on-site at workplace
  • High security measures at the workplace
  • Verbal and/or physical abuse

Additional red flags of trafficking are victims attempting to protect or defend the person(s) who is hurting them or minimizing the abuse, being unable to clarify where they are living, or providing scripted or unclear stories.

What are anti-trafficking organizations I can support?

Polaris is an organization working to aid victims of sex trafficking through initiatives such as a human trafficking hotline that victims or people suspicious of human trafficking can call for assistance. Polaris also operates a program to get temporary visas for victims of trafficking, as victims are often tricked into coming to the U.S. under false pretense of a job.

Thorn, run by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, is an organization utilizing new technology to rescue children from human trafficking. Three out of four children who have been trafficked have been advertised online at one point, and Thorn’s technology has seen a 63% increase in efficiency of successful victim identification. On average, Thorn accurately identifies eight trafficked children each day and has identified 9,380 victimized children in total.

World Without Exploitation is a coalition of different organizations all using different skills and backgrounds to help end sex trafficking. WWE provides support by providing survivors of trafficking with the means to both to leave their situations and rebuild their lives afterward.

What can I do?

If you’re online (both websites and social media) and see something that seems suspicious, report it.

Know the number for a sex trafficking hotline near you.

Be cognizant of where you are buying products from: The Department of Labor’s website has a list of goods that are produced by child or forced labor.

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