January is National Slavery & Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a month that we not only raise awareness, but also stand in support of those victims and survivors of these crimes. There has been great progress since 2000 when both the United Nations and U.S. Congress passed laws addressing the trafficking and exploitation of people. The U.S. Law, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, defines “human trafficking” as the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.
Although it is difficult to know the exact number of people who are exploited or trafficked, the International Labor Organization estimates that at any given time there are 20.9 million people trapped in forced labor and human trafficking worldwide, and, of those victimized, 1 in 4 are children. The National Human Trafficking Hotline and Resource Center has documented that the number of reported incidences of human trafficking has increased every year in the United States. Although, more organizations and governmental agencies identify and serve victims and survivors of trafficking, only a fraction of people estimated to be exploited or trafficked receive assistance.
Anyone can be a victim of human trafficking and exploitation, but some situations make individuals more vulnerable. Children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation, and they are considered victims of trafficking regardless of force or coercion when they are induced into commercial sexual exploitation. Situations that make children more susceptible trafficking include: being a runaway or homeless, a history of abuse and/or neglect, involvement in foster care and child welfare systems, experience with social discrimination, and displacement resulting from conflict or natural disaster. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 1 in 6 runaway youth are likely victims of sex trafficking when they went missing. While many homeless youth may experience commercial sexual exploitation, reports suggest that many are also exploited for labor. Since many of these risk factors are linked with lack of safe shelter or social support, it is imperative that short-term and long-term services address these primary needs.
Greater awareness and education about human trafficking improves our ability to identify potential victims. As such, it is important to understand the experiences of victims and survivors, and how their lives are impacted by trafficking and exploitation. The Polaris Project, a national anti-slavery nonprofit organization that is responsible for the National Human Trafficking Hotline and Resource Center, reports that children and young people are most frequently exploited for commercial sex, peddling and begging, and committing illicit activities (e.g. petty theft and drug related activities). In addition, many adult victims and survivors of trafficking indicate that their exploitation began well before they turned 18, which is important because victims may be trafficked years before they break free from exploitative situations.
The needs of the individuals who are trafficked and exploited are complex, and require a multidisciplinary service approach that addresses immediate and long-term needs. Some immediate needs include immigration and legal services, safety protections, food, shelter, and other basic needs. When these immediate needs are not addressed, victims and survivors are vulnerable to future exploitation. Healing from trafficking and exploitation does not end after escaping exploitation or receiving initial victim services, which often last less than two years. Support services need to address the long-term physical, emotional, and social harms caused by exploitation and to assist victims and survivors in developing the tools and strategies to protect against future exploitation. Many victims and survivors were trafficked as children and may not have developed many of the skills necessary to be self-reliant. Programs and supports must also provide victims and survivors with the skills and education to secure their independence.
Human trafficking awareness does not end with the acknowledgement of the crime, but understanding the whole experience. We should strive to always prevent the exploitation of people through ensuring personal safety and support, and we must always remember to provide the necessary support of those who have experienced exploitation to ensure that every person has the ability to live a life of freedom.