Thursday, July 30th, marks the seventh annual World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.
This global event was launched in 2013, when the General Assembly of the United Nations came together to dedicate a day to raising awareness about human trafficking and the situations of the victims involved, and to promote and protect their rights.
This year’s theme, “Committed to the Cause: Working on the Frontline to End Human Trafficking,” is appropriately focused on recognizing frontline workers who are committed to identifying, supporting, counseling and seeking justice for victims of trafficking, and challenging the impunity of the traffickers.
What is Human Trafficking?
The scale of human trafficking is staggering, entrapping an estimated 40.3 million people globally in conditions of modern day slavery. Trafficking takes many forms but by definition, includes the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of exploitation, including the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation and forced labor.
As a result of mainstream media and Hollywood blockbusters, human trafficking is often depicted in sensationalized images that nearly always begins with a dramatized kidnapping, leading to a young woman being forced into sex work. More often than not, this crime is perpetuated by an underground global prostitution ring that is ultimately taken down by an equally dramatic rescue.
While this scenario can play out in reality, the large majority of human trafficking cases look vastly different. Most traffickers utilize psychological tactics to trick, manipulate or threaten their victims, often around the premise of economic opportunity and bait-and-switch promises of a better life. Perpetrators can be strangers or have familiar faces: a romantic partner, a family member, and even parents.
Though the overwhelming majority of commercial sex trafficking victims are women and girls─99% according to the International Labor Organization─trafficking takes many forms, including forced labor, indentured servitude, child marriage and conscription (i.e. child soldiers)─and can impact men and boys, who are often silent, unseen victims of modern day slavery. The most recent data in the UN Global Report on the Trafficking in Persons estimates that men account for 21% of all persons trafficked globally, and more than half of all trafficking victims of forced labor. The same report estimates that 30% of all detected victims worldwide are children.
Trafficking in the U.S.: The Ugly Truth
While there are myriad myths and misconceptions about human trafficking, there are a few notable ones that we want to bust as we approach World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, and highlight some vital, important truths about this horrific crime. Among them:
- Trafficking is not merely a problem happening in third-world countries “over there,” among the faces of young women and girls in Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe. Modern day slavery is alive and well in the U.S. today, with an estimated 400,000 people believed to be trapped working as modern slaves: at every major sporting event, in truck stops, in restaurants, on farms, in massage parlors and in hotels. Trafficking hides in plain sight and is seen, touched and supported by Americans everyday, in every zip code across the country.
Likewise, victims cannot be profiled and distanced in images of the “other.” Individuals exploited and trafficked everyday are U.S.-born citizens just as they are foreign nationals, living in or brought to this country by both illegal and lawful means.
- Traffickers do not only target poor individuals from small rural villages. While poverty is a common vulnerability, it alone is not a single causal factor of human trafficking. There are a multitude of compounding factors that can increase an individual’s vulnerability to trafficking: homelessness, history of trauma or violence, disability, neglect, family breakdown, substance abuse, or a combination of these and many other factors. Though in all cases, traffickers exploit the vulnerabilities that individuals already face.
And while trafficking can happen to anyone, there are undeniable gender and racial dimensions to human trafficking that disproportionately affect women of color. In the U.S., approximately 40% of sex trafficking victims in the U.S. are Black and compared to their racial counterparts, Black girls are more likely to be trafficked at a younger age. One study found that 85% of those who bought sex on the internet were white men and in an interview with the Urban Institute, traffickers admitted their belief that trafficking Black women would land them less jail time than trafficking white women, if caught.
Recognizing, understanding and acknowledging the intrinsic link between human trafficking and structural racism in the U.S. is the first essential step in addressing the root causes of this crime.
- Victims are rarely “freed” from their trafficking experience despite exiting their exploitation. The climactic rescue scenes that unfold on screen are typically followed by images of a resumed “normal” life. Yet, this portrayal is problematic in multiple ways: it not only over-simplifies the survivors’ trafficking experience with a start and end point, disregarding the lifetime of discrimination, oppression and exploitation they have likely faced and will most likely continue to face, it also assumes a “‘rescue’ mentality steeped in racialized perspectives” that are founded on the notions of white saviorism.
The rescue scenario also obscures the complex reality of victims’ experiences, crafted on assumptions that they are powerless to leave, are held against their will or always want to get out. Though sometimes the case, people in trafficking situations also stay for a complex array of reasons including familial pressures, economic needs, or lack of basic necessities to physically leave, such as transportation or a safe place to live. In other cases, trafficked individuals may not be aware they have been trafficked or are a victim of a crime, having been manipulated by their traffickers or born into their enslaved circumstances.
Importantly, the point of escape is hardly the end, but the beginning of another lifelong journey that coexists in parallel to a survivor’s trafficking experience. Not only are a small percentage of survivors ever “rescued,” even fewer are able to secure true freedom or justice, burdened by stigma, lack of opportunity and an inherently biased system that discriminates against them.
Over the past five years, only 1,230 federal prosecutions were initiated against human traffickers, representing less than 3% of total cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. At the same time, survivors are too often criminalized for the crimes committed against them. Nineteen states can still arrest and charge youth survivors with the crime of prostitution despite being a victim of child sex trafficking.
That’s right: despite growing consensus that a child cannot be a prostitute, there are still states and legislators who believe that a minor can willingly and consensually engage in commercial sex. And Black children bear the brunt of these arrests, disproportionately making up nearly 58% of all juvenile prostitution arrests.
What Next? Life After “The Life”
Human trafficking is a lifetime cost for survivors, especially for women and children of color. Yet, very few ask what comes after “the rescue.” What happens after the dust settles and a survivor, against all odds, is able to imagine their future beyond the shelter and trauma support group? Or even years after they have started down their road to recovery? According to one nonprofit executive, many in the human trafficking community shy away from the notion of the rescue “because it doesn’t give merit to the process that is at play when a trafficking victim exist the Life.”
At AnnieCannons, we recognize that survivors face insurmountable barriers to sustainable recovery that are impacted by a lifetime of multiple victimizations. We know that trauma is not a one-time event, and a return to a pre-trafficking “normal” only perpetuates the violence and discrimination that created opportunities for their exploitation in the first place. We aim to permanently break this cycle by unlocking the talents, brilliance, ingenuity and perseverance that survivors already possess, yet are largely overlooked.
We see this potential, and work hand-in-hand with survivors in our program, on our team, and in our workplace to leverage their abilities and gain the economic power they deserve. In doing so, we are also challenging the status quo that discriminates against survivors, women and minorities in the workplace, demanding a new improved normal that is built on inclusion and diversity.
How YOU Can Help
Human trafficking is a global problem that requires a global solution. Yet, despite the grand scale of this issue, there are simple, everyday ways that we can all fight against modern day slavery. There is a role for everyone to play and together, we can stop human trafficking and demand justice for survivors in this country. Here are a few ways you can help:
- Support frontline workers fighting trafficking and supporting survivors in your community. Human trafficking, racial injustice and gender inequality are mutually-reinforcing when we talk about vulnerability and exploitation. Don’t know where to begin? Start by reaching out to your local shelters and victim services providers to see how you can help. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about how you can support survivors.
- Be a mindful consumer. Trafficking bleeds into every global supply chain, from the clothes you wear to the food you eat. Support socially responsible businesses and demand social responsibility from businesses in your community. Visit KnowTheChain to see which industries and companies are working to eliminate slavery from their products.
- Contact your government representatives in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives to support bills to fund America’s anti-trafficking initiatives.
- Most importantly, use your platform and your social advantage to fight alongside survivors and amplify their voices. Allyship is needed now, more than ever.