Human trafficking is one of the worst things a human being can experience in the 21st century. Many non-profits fighting to end human trafficking and scholars who study it refer to it as modern-day slavery, and rightfully so. Human trafficking involves exploiting a person to use their body for material gain, completely stripping them of any agency. Between 600,000 and 800,000 people are carted across international borders every year, and expert evaluations suggest that 30,000 die while being trafficked annually.¹ And those numbers are just estimations.
Though it can be difficult to find accurate statistics because so much human trafficking goes unreported, the numbers we have are still illuminating. An estimated 24.9 million people are trafficked worldwide annually.² Polaris — the leading national non-profit that helps run the National Human Trafficking Hotline — identified 16,658 victims through their hotline in 2020 alone.³ And trafficking occurs in every country, including the United States.
In this guide, we’ll discuss what human trafficking is, what it might look like, and what to watch out for. We’ll also refute some widely-circulated myths about human trafficking, point you toward resources that can help victims get back on their feet, and highlight other organizations that are working to end human trafficking altogether.
Human trafficking is the exploitation of human beings’ labor through force, fraud, or coercion. Some major organizations make it even simpler and define it as “the business of stealing freedom for profit.”⁴ However, force, fraud, and coercion are critical to understanding human trafficking as part of the federal definition and associated laws.
The AMP Model (Action-Means-Purpose) can help us further break down and understand this federal definition: human trafficking occurs when a trafficker takes action to draw in a victim and then uses the means of force, fraud, or coercion to make a victim perform labor.⁵ Without action, means, or purpose, the situation may not be trafficking. However, human trafficking covers a wide range of activities, from personal domestic servants to prostitution, and can happen to anyone.
No one is immune to human trafficking, and it’s one of the most profitable large crimes (alongside arms and drug trafficking). However, many of the statistics and estimates on the annual profitability of human trafficking are flawed, and we don’t know how much money comes into the global economy from human trafficking every year.
There are two primary forms of human trafficking: forced labor and sex trafficking. According to the International Labor Organization, the Walk Free Foundation, and the International Organization for Migration’s study on human trafficking in 2016, about 24.9 million people are trafficked annually in the following sectors:¹
Forced labor in public and private fields accounts for 20.1 million victims (or about 80% of all human trafficking). This is about the same number of people with a substance use disorder⁶ or thyroid disease in the United States.⁷
There are a few key commonalities between forced labor and sex trafficking:
Labor trafficking encompasses most non-sexual trafficking. There are as many kinds of forced labor as there are jobs, but it tends to be most common in food and consumer goods production and in-home domestic labor. Sweatshops and agricultural labor might immediately come to mind, but trafficking can occur in legal businesses of any status, including nannying, construction, and warehouses. Migrant populations or undocumented immigrants are at an especially high risk of exploitation from labor trafficking because of the power an employer has over their living situation. However, anyone can be a victim of labor trafficking.
Forced labor often begins with what looks like the standard procedure for getting a new job with some red flags. Signs that a job might be labor trafficking include:
Debt bondage is another important but infrequently discussed form of labor trafficking. Like indentured servitude, debt bondage occurs when your labor is used to repay a debt. The terms and conditions haven’t been defined, or your work goes considerably above and beyond the value of your debt in these situations.⁸ For example, you might be tricked into an employment contract you can’t leave. Or you might get a job to pay off debt but your boss randomly deducts money from your biweekly paycheck, pushing you further into debt on purpose. No matter the circumstances, labor trafficking is a serious concern.
Sex trafficking is human trafficking for the explicit purpose of sexual exploitation. All sex trafficking is human trafficking, but not all human trafficking is sexual. At their core, both forms of trafficking exploit their victims’ basic human needs and rights and use victims’ bodies for material gain. A third party must also be involved in sex trafficking besides the two (or more) people involved in the sexual situation: the trafficker, who pulls the strings behind the scenes. They may also be known as the “john” and play a pimp-like role.
You can be sex trafficked through live sex acts such as prostitution or pornography. Some people have their bodies sold on the Internet for sex, and some are traded within an insider network. Others are employed in places like nail salons and massage parlors. But like labor trafficking, victims of sex trafficking are isolated from others, live in dangerous conditions (often with their employer), and are threatened if they try to leave.
It’s important to remember that sex trafficking isn’t the same as sex work. Others may exploit sex work, and sex workers can enter dangerous situations. But sex work is fundamentally different as a profession chosen (out of desire or out of desperate circumstances) with willing engagement. Prostitution is still a crime in every U.S. state except for Nevada, which can make sex workers more likely to be victimized by human trafficking: a trafficker can threaten to report a victim with a history of willing sex work just as they can an undocumented immigrant.
Many victims of sex trafficking are women and children, but some men are sex trafficked as well. Some risk factors that put children at a higher risk of sex trafficking are unique, including:⁹
The average age of a sex trafficked minor is between 11 and 14.¹⁰ Studies have found that sex trafficking occurs more often in places close to interstate highways with high concentrations of low-cost hotels or motels, more adult-oriented stores, and economically disadvantaged residents.¹¹
Human trafficking isn’t just something that happens to impoverished young women in non-Western countries. It can happen to anyone regardless of gender, age, class, and nationality.
Any oppressed status or feature that makes a person vulnerable to exploitation increases the risk of human trafficking, as a trafficker can (and often will) leverage that status against their victims. For example, a trafficker holds power over an undocumented immigrant in a forced labor setting in the United States by telling the victim that if they complain about their work, they’ll be reported to ICE and deported. This fear then keeps the victim from seeking help.
Other features that make you more vulnerable to human trafficking include:¹²
Some groups are at higher risk than others. Women are more likely to be victims of human trafficking, as an estimated 65% of victims were female in 2018 (both adults and children, down from 84% in 2004). Women are also more likely to be sex trafficked than men.¹³ And because financial incentives are a standard method of tricking someone into exploitative labor practices, impoverished individuals are significantly more likely to be trafficked than those in financially stable situations. Those who lack community support or close relationships may be easily lured by a trafficker’s promises of stability.
We’ll dive into a few other groups at the highest risk of victimization below.
Runaway and homeless youth are at a particularly high risk of being trafficked. About 10% of young people aged 18-25 experience some kind of homelessness over twelve months, as do one in 30 teenagers aged 13-17.¹⁴ Minority youth are even more likely to be homeless, particularly when it comes to non-white LGBTQ+ youth. According to the Trevor Project’s 2021 survey, 28% of LGBTQ+ youth reported experiencing homelessness or housing instability at some point; the number skyrockets to:
Put together, that’s a massive number of children at risk, considering that one in five runaway and homeless youth become victims of human trafficking.¹⁶
According to the Immigration and Human Rights Law Review through the University of Cincinnati, Indigenous people comprise about 1.1% of the United States population but account for 25% of all human trafficking cases.¹⁷ Indigenous women and girls are at a considerable disadvantage in terms of both material resources and social support. They often have limited access to resources or organizations that can identify and assist victims.⁸ And because of stereotypes about Indigenous communities and discrimination, law enforcement can miss the signs of trafficking that would be clear in other circumstances.
It’s such an extreme situation that in 2016, the National Crime Information Center reported 5,712 missing Indigenous women and girls, but the U.S. Department of Justice only registered 116 cases.¹⁸
Not all murdered and missing Indigenous women are trafficked — according to the CDC, Indigenous women are ten times more likely to be murdered than women of other ethnicities.¹⁹ But a 2016 National Institute of Justice study found that 84.3% of Indigenous women have experienced physical violence in their lifetimes.²⁰ Considering that poverty, substance abuse, a lack of community support, and a history of abuse increase one’s risk of being trafficked, it’s clear that Indigenous women and girls are at high risk.
Despite how critical agricultural workers are for our food system (and, therefore, our society), non-resident agricultural workers are highly likely to be trafficked. There have been several significant stories of labor trafficking among U.S. migrant and seasonal farmworkers in 2022 based on exploitative loopholes in agricultural visa programs. Migrant and seasonal workers are those who legally travel across international borders for a brief time to work but don’t move from their permanent residence in another country. Despite several protections like the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), agricultural work is full of labor trafficking.
Migrant and seasonal agricultural work is a strong entry point for child labor trafficking and debt bondage, according to a 2022 report from the United Nations Human Rights commission.²¹ Polaris reports regularly receiving many calls from migrant and seasonal workers, adding up to more than 4,800 trafficked individuals. The ubiquity of human trafficking in these groups can be attributed to:
Human traffickers take advantage of and exploit vulnerable people. But how do you know whether or not someone is actually being trafficked? And how do you know if you’re at risk? We’ll help you identify the signs — and bust myths around how human traffickers pick their victims.
You might notice some signs as a bystander or observer if someone is being trafficked. These signs aren’t unique to human trafficking; some may even be innocuous on their own, but displaying many of these may prompt a check-in.
Some more serious red flags include:
Take note if you see several of these signs in someone you know or regularly see out and about. They may be in a dangerous situation as a potential victim of human trafficking.
The rise of the Internet has created even more opportunities for human trafficking. The dark web allows traffickers to buy and sell their victims while evading law enforcement, rendering these transactions virtually untraceable.³¹ Introducing cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, has only complicated this matter. Between 15% and 27% of all websites that sell sexual acts accept cryptocurrency as payment, which makes it even more difficult to trace who’s purchased a human being.³² In 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice seized the largest online platform used for sex trafficking, backpage.com, which fragmented the market and targeted between $83.4 and $91.8 million.³³
Two laws were passed in 2018 to curb online sex trafficking — the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), often referred to as FOSTA-SESTA. However, they’ve mostly led to stricter pornography and non-traffic sex work bans on the Internet (particularly on social media). FOSTA-SESTA claimed to shut down 90% of online sex trafficking advertisements after its adoption. Upon further research, that number quickly returned to 75% of the original figure (meaning it ultimately only shut down 25% of sex trafficking advertisements).³⁴ Creating laws to protect people from human and sex trafficking is important, but FOSTA-SESTA may not be the only answer.
Trafficking itself isn’t the only thing that happens on the Internet. Traffickers can use their victim’s social media accounts to recruit new people for human trafficking and control the appearance of their victims, essentially covering their tracks. While social media can be a source of good, connecting vulnerable populations with a community that can support them, those same vulnerabilities leave them prey to human traffickers.³⁵ A trafficker might also continue running their victim’s social media accounts, posting statuses, sharing pictures, and commenting on others’ posts to fake normalcy.
Despite what TikTok or Facebook may tell you, human traffickers don’t pick their victims indiscriminately. Many of the “common knowledge” signs people discuss aren’t legitimate methods that traffickers use.
For example, leaving a store and finding a zip tie on your car door doesn’t mean that someone is waiting for you to look down and leave yourself defenseless. (Both non-profits and local law enforcement agencies have stated that the zip-tie method isn’t a common trend in trafficking.)²³ Other disproven myths and rumors include:
When you think about kidnapping or trafficking, you might think of someone standing outside a white, unmarked van asking if you want some candy or to look at their puppies. However, traffickers are just as aware of this connotation as you are. They drive every kind of car, so there’s no way to predict who’s dangerous based on their vehicle.
Traffickers aren’t in the business of setting traps to lure victims. Both local police departments and large organizations like Polaris have stated that this information is false and can harm actual trafficking survivors.²⁴
You’re more likely to get your information stolen if you click on a random link from a sketchy text message, as these kinds of texts are often phishing scams. While they may steal your personal information and you shouldn't engage with them, it’s unlikely that a human being on the other end is trying to traffic you. Likewise, most wrong number texts are just that — wrong numbers.
People selling roses on street corners are most often doing just that: selling roses. A person passing out and being kidnapped off a street corner or in a parking lot is conspicuous and could draw a lot of attention, which is the last thing a trafficker wants. Much like abandoned car seats or baby cries, this rumor is simply unfounded.
The 2016 far-right conspiracy theory has long been proven false but started making the rounds again on TikTok in 2020.²⁵ This theory claims that Bill and Hillary Clinton (former president and first lady) traffic children to other prominent world leaders in the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant basement in Washington, D.C. The theory had several big promoters, such as radio host Alex Jones and former president Donald Trump. Pizzagate (as it grew to be known) expanded quickly and developed a vast mythos, including things like the terms “pizza” and “hot dog” used to refer to female and male children, and led to a shooting inside the restaurant in 2017.²⁶
When four different storage cabinets showed up for $12,700 or more on the furniture and home goods store Wayfair’s website, a conspiracy theory spread online that they contained trafficked children. However, the steep prices align with commercial standards for industrial cabinets of the same size²⁷, and Polaris determined the claim was baseless.²⁸
This rumor just isn’t true. When the cargo ship escaped from the canal after six days in March 2021, Egyptian authorities who inspected the ship for damages found no human beings on board who weren’t supposed to be there. The cargo itself was mostly IKEA furniture.²⁹
Another prevalent myth is that being followed in a store means someone is stalking you to kidnap and traffic you. This rumor came back into the limelight in a series of viral videos about a young woman being followed in a Target in early 2021. Being followed is something to take seriously, and you have every right to be concerned — especially considering one in three women has been the subject of physical violence. However, traffickers infrequently find victims this way. Much like human trafficking, most women who experience violence do so at the hands of a partner, family member, friend, or acquaintance, not a total stranger.³⁰
Most of the time, traffickers lure their victims psychologically, establishing a bond with them before deceiving, defrauding, threatening, or manipulating them into trafficking (also known as grooming). Stranger abductions are pretty rare, despite our fears.
Though it’s unlikely you’ll be scooped up off the street and sold into human trafficking, there are steps you can take to keep yourself safe. Number one is to be aware of your surroundings, whether you’re out and about or on social media. Polaris reported that in 2020, the Internet was the most popular place for recruiting every kind of trafficking, with a 125% increase in reports of recruitments from Facebook and 95% on Instagram.³ Friend requests from people you don’t know might be spam, or it might be someone trying to investigate whether or not you’d be susceptible to trafficking.
Once you’re in contact, traffickers often try to paint a picture of an unrealistically better life (often with lots of money) to lure you in. This is particularly common in labor trafficking but also happens in sex trafficking, especially when this better life is poised as “payment” for sex or unpaid labor. And manipulation like this isn’t often straightforward, either — traffickers are generally people you know and may already trust, who recognize you as vulnerable.
While the term “grooming” has recently taken on a life of its own, it is something that occurs for many human trafficking victims. Grooming means that someone is training or manipulating you into trafficking. It’s a slow process and one that can be easy to miss. There are five stages of grooming:³⁶
Essentially, a trafficker slowly befriends someone before cutting them off from the world for the sake of trafficking them. It makes it extremely difficult to tell you’re being trafficked as they cut you off from friends and family, give you a place to live, and ease you into things like getting paid to go on dates. Much like an abusive relationship, grooming can be subtle until it’s too late. If someone has quickly become the center of your life, doing things like picking you up from school or work and making snide remarks about your friends to get you to stop talking to them, they might be grooming you for trafficking.
When you’re looking for a new job, be sure to take your time and read through your employment contract. If you aren’t given one, given one in a language you can’t understand, or are shamed or pressured into reading it quickly (or not at all), that may be a red flag for a trafficking situation. Your employer should not try to obscure your working conditions or what they expect from you. That compounds if you try to ask questions — legitimate employers will be happy to answer your questions, and traffickers want easy targets. Asking many questions about an employment situation can deter traffickers from taking you as a labor trafficking victim.
It can be scary to realize that someone you know might be a victim of human trafficking. But before you panic, you can take a few steps to help secure their safety.
The most important thing to remember is to take things at their pace. They have the best insight into their situation, so whether or not you understand, respecting their choices is the best way to help promote safe self-empowerment. Some traffickers may threaten them, their family, or those around them (including you) with harm if they try to leave, and the victim may not have access to their paperwork (such as their passport, green card, or driver’s license). Self-empowerment is critical since human trafficking takes away every ounce of their agency.
If you can get into a private space with a potential victim, you might want to ask a few questions to help you determine if they’re in danger before immediately stepping in to help. Since there’s always a risk of the victim getting hurt if others find out, you must talk to them somewhere their trafficker isn’t watching or listening. The U.S. Department of State recommends asking a potential victim some of the following questions:³⁷
You can also take note of any identifying information you notice if you’re witness to a sketchy situation. This might include vehicle details (make, model, year, license plate number) or information about people who seem to be threatening, guarding, or leading them.
If they aren’t in a safe place to leave, the best thing you can do is support them as a person. Help to build their self-esteem — such as telling them that they are smart, strong, and brave — and establishing yourself as a safe person they can trust when they can take the next steps. Part of the psychological victimization that comes with human trafficking is belittling the victim and creating an extreme sense of isolation. Trying to reintegrate into society after trafficking can be as scary as being trafficked for some, and knowing that they have people on their side can help to improve their chances of survival.
Call a hotline (such as the National Human Trafficking hotline) or your local law enforcement if the person you’re talking to indicates they are being trafficked and are ready for help to escape. A hotline is your best bet if you find that your potential victim has recently been freed but doesn’t know what to do next. And if there’s an active emergency or someone’s life is immediately on the line, call 911.
Most victims of human trafficking never self-identify as victims, nor will they ever report what happened to them.³⁸ Still, human trafficking is an exceptionally traumatic experience. Victims and survivors experience some of the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A 2015 study found that 39% of adults and 27% of children who were victims of human trafficking developed PTSD.³⁹ That’s compared to about 6% of the general population who experiences PTSD at any point,⁴⁰ 11-20% of U.S. combat veterans in the 21st century, or 30% of U.S. Vietnam War veterans.⁴¹ PTSD can happen to anyone after experiencing or witnessing trauma, and it doesn’t mean you’re weak or broken, but rather that your brain is trying to make sense of a horrific experience.
Major symptoms of PTSD include:⁴²
If you experience these symptoms for longer than one month after leaving the situation, reach out to a therapist or counselor. There are professionals specifically trained in trauma care who will be able to help.
Complex PTSD (CPTSD) is also a newly developed diagnosis that relies on repeated traumatic events over a long period.⁴³ It’s similar to — but separate from — PTSD because CPTSD depends on repeated trauma rather than one exposure. People who experience abuse or neglect as a child are likely to experience CPTSD, as are those unhoused in dangerous situations. A 2022 study found that more survivors — 41% — experienced CPTSD, and those who experienced heightened stress levels after escaping trafficking were more likely to develop CPTSD than PTSD.⁴⁴ It’s critical for your long-term health to get as safe as possible as quickly as you can.
PTSD and CPTSD aren’t the only problems you can have as a survivor. Victims of human trafficking are also at a high risk of:
Many victims have been starved or physically abused, leaving them vulnerable to additional health problems both immediately and long term. Rates of HIV infection and gynecological problems are higher in those forced into sex trafficking.⁴⁵ Likewise, many already have or develop substance abuse disorders during their trafficking, and addiction lingers for life.
Survivors of human trafficking are also at an extremely high risk of trauma bonding. Trauma bonding is a lot like Stockholm syndrome, where the trafficker and their victim form a complex, toxic emotional bond. Traffickers isolate their victims from other meaningful social interactions to keep them dependent for basic needs, and victims can develop powerful emotional relationships with their traffickers. Trauma bonding relies on four main aspects:⁴⁶
Those with previous trauma are especially vulnerable to trauma bonding with their trafficker. It may seem counter-intuitive, but particularly in sex trafficking situations, this closeness protects the trafficker from prosecution and arrest. Victims often continue to feel love for their trafficker after leaving the situation and don’t want to hurt their trafficker, despite how much they’ve been hurt. Since victims often lose their sense of self when they lose agency in a trafficking situation, attaching themselves to their traffickers and internalizing their own abuse can help them cope in the moment. Most people who experience trauma bonding go on to develop CPTSD.⁴⁷ It also dramatically affects a victim’s ability to later form healthy attachments: if the last person they trusted betrayed them so fundamentally, what’s to say any other person won’t?
These psychological consequences only scratch the surface of the long-term repercussions of human trafficking. Missed educational and career opportunities, tenuous housing, and feeling lost in the world after leaving human trafficking can affect your well-being, thoughts, and hopes for the future. Many victims feel lost in their identity and struggle to find a broader meaning.
You might experience significant guilt, shame, or self-blame for your experiences. It’s important to recognize that you are not at fault for being a victim of human trafficking, even if you feel like you “let this happen,” get frustrated with yourself for not recognizing the signs before it was too late, or fear that you’ll never be able to have a normal life. You are not to blame for your suffering. While you can’t undo the past, things will be okay again one day.
No matter your situation, resources are available to help you. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but we hope it gives you a place to start.
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