7 Facts You Didn't Know about Human Trafficking

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Human trafficking is a widespread and often misunderstood phenomenon. Learn to identify common risk factors and warning signs of human trafficking—and what you can do to help end it.

Human trafficking, as defined by the United Nations, is the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or coercion...for the purpose of exploitation.” According to the nonprofit organization Human Rights First, an estimated 24.9 million people are trapped in this form of modern-day slavery, most often exploited for labor or sex.

To shed light on common risk factors and what is being done to combat trafficking today, we spoke to Annalisa Enrile, clinical associate professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, whose areas of expertise include sex trafficking, exploitative migrant labor and global justice.

1. Who do human traffickers target?

According to Enrile, anyone can fall victim to human trafficking. However, vulnerable populations who have little social and legal protection are the most at risk. The majority of victims are women—70 percent—and risk for women may be heightened further in areas where extreme gender discrimination prevails.

Additional factors such as impoverishment, residing in a place of political instability, enduring systemic racism, suffering from a mental disorder, or being involved in gangs may increase a person’s likelihood of victimization.

2. Where does human trafficking occur?

Human trafficking occurs in every country—even in first-world countries such as the United States. “We don’t notice trafficking in our own backyard because it is often physically or euphemistically masked,” Enrile said. “For instance, men who are trafficked in the construction industry are often kept in ‘dormitories’ that are hours away from the worksite.”

Russia, China and the Sudan are always listed among the countries with the highest trafficking rates. Additionally, according to the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, countries with unstable governments exhibit higher risk for human trafficking. According to Enrile, sex trafficking is rampant in Southeast Asia—especially in the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia—while child trafficking occurs more frequently in India and Pakistan and labor trafficking is highest in the Middle East and South America.

3. How do traffickers lure their victims?

Traffickers lure victims in a variety of ways. This may include “what we stereotypically think of in terms of kidnapping and coercion,” Enrile said. “However, victimization can also occur by means of fraud”—such as cases in which workers believe they’re entering a new employment contract but instead have their legal documentation confiscated and become enslaved. Similar situations often occur in cases concerning “mail-order brides”—women who believe they are going to marry a foreigner and end up being sold into trafficking rings.

A phenomenon colloquially referred to as “romeo pimping” may be used to traffic women and children for sexual exploitation. Romeo pimping, according to Enrile, is a situation in which a man tricks a victim into believing they are in a relationship or in love, only to enslave them.

4. How can human trafficking be identified?

“Unfortunately, this is a loaded question because there are so many different signs that may indicate that a person is being trafficked,” Enrile said. According to the U.S. Department of State, though anyone could be a victim of trafficking and display no warning signs, some common indicators may exist.

Red flags may include living with an employer, living in a cramped space with multiple other people, being unable to speak to another person privately, displaying signs of physical abuse, behaving submissively or fearfully, receiving extremely low or no pay for work, speaking in a manner that appears scripted and rehearsed, and prostituting while underage.

5. What are the effects of human trafficking on victims?

Trafficked persons tend to be physically exploited, oftentimes without access to proper food, hygiene or health care, and may be frequently subject to violence at the hands of their traffickers—leaving them to suffer a number of health complications. These issues may be compounded if the victim is trafficked for sex, as he or she becomes more vulnerable to potentially life-threatening STIs such as HIV/AIDS.

However, physical consequences are not the only effects of human trafficking on victims. “Trafficked persons also suffer negative psychological and social effects,” Enrile said. “Issues such as trauma, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), shame and depression are common results of trafficking.”

Indeed, depression is exceedingly common in trafficking victims. Children are especially at risk of threats to their psychological and emotional development. A survey conducted by the JAMA Pediatrics journal of adolescents between the ages of 10 and 17 who were trafficked in Southeast Asia found that 12 percent of the children had attempted to harm or kill themselves in the previous month alone, and 56 percent suffered from depression.

Victims of human trafficking also commonly experience social rejection and ostracism. According to Human Trafficking Search, “Trafficked persons are often isolated from their social circles, unable to engage socially or reach out for help.” International victims may be especially unable to ask for help due to a lack of native fluency or restricted geographic and cultural knowledge. Sex trafficking victims may face additional stigma and negative responses from friends and family, posing a further threat to their emotional and psychological health.

6. What is being done to fight human trafficking?

“Work that promotes transparency may be the most effective weapon we have in battling human trafficking today,” Enrile said. “Transparency shines a light on what is really happening.”

A bipartisan bill proposed in January seeks to do just that, with a focus on temporary foreign visitors to the U.S. Visitors traveling on temporary visas often see higher rates of human trafficking. The bill aims to “create a uniform system for publicly reporting data that the government already collects on temporary visa programs, allowing an examination of temporary visa holder exploitation.” The bill has been backed by Polaris and other major human rights watch groups.

7. What should I do if I suspect human trafficking?

In the United States, anyone who suspects human trafficking is encouraged to reach out to the local authorities as soon as possible. Here are some of the best resources:

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