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Human Trafficking
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Human Trafficking


By Elizabeth Pathy Salett, LICSW


Human trafficking, the modern-day slave trade, is a world-wide phenomenon that refers to the “illegal trade of human beings, throgh abduction, the use or threat of force, deception, fraud, or ‘sale’ for the purposes of sexual exploitation or forced labor.” (UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.)  The number of people held in slavery worldwide is estimated to be between 12-27 million, more than at any time in world history.(International Labor Organization and United Nations) Each year, according to the United Nations, between 700,000 – 900,000 people fall victim to trafficking across international borders and are bought, sold, transported and held against their will worldwide. The U.S. Government estimates that between 14,500 –17,500 victims are trafficked into the United States annually and that there are currently 200,000 people in this country who have been trafficked.  A large proportion of the victims are women and children.  One of the undersides of globalization, human trafficking exists in at least 127 countries and has become a highly lucrative business. Not only is it the second most lucrative illicit enterprise in the world after drug trafficking, it is also the fastest growing, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The International Labor Organization estimates global profits from human trafficking at $44.3 billion USD per year.


Human traffickers force people to be slaves in a wide variety of industries and circumstances.  The most prevalent on a worldwide level are agriculture, mining and forced prostitution.  Victims may be women and children who have been abducted, sold or tricked into commercial sex; or women, children and men in forced labor, in industries such as domestic servitude, agriculture, construction, restaurant, mining or manufacturing, and are held by force with no remuneration or opportunity to leave. Some people are enslaved through debt bondage, where the slaveholder forces a victim—or entire families—to work without pay to pay off a bogus, illegal ‘debt’. Other victims are captured and used by marauders in armed conflicts.  Trafficking in human beings is not new, but the complexity of this phenomenon has grown exponentially in the past fifteen years, and continues to grow in scope and magnitude each year. This is facilitated by a number of interconnected factors including the substantial increase in the number of people in the developing world as a result of high rates of population growth; the changing social and economic conditions that have brought large numbers of people from rural areas into urban centers where they don’t have jobs or employment prospects; and government corruption that turns a blind eye to trafficking. 

Gender discrimination and the feminization of poverty also contribute to the vulnerability of women and children who often cannot find jobs to support their families. Extreme poverty produces the supply of victims. The demand for commercial sex and cheap goods and labor create the market for victims worldwide.  Globalization and the promise of good jobs and economic opportunity serve to lure women and men to what they believe will bring them a better life. While many trafficking victims are abducted or are tricked into a trafficking situation, some trafficking victims begin by migrating voluntarily. They choose to leave their community or country of origin for economic, personal or political reasons, and only after they arrive at their destination does the trafficker use force or coercion to keep them under his or her control.

Although often confused with smuggling, human trafficking is a distinct issue. In the case of smuggling, migrants pay an ‘agent’ to help them illegally cross a national border. After arriving in the desired destination, the relationship between migrant and ‘agent’ ends. Migrants are free to move wherever they choose and pursue or not pursue employment opportunities at will. In the case of trafficking, on the other hand, upon arrival at the destination, the agent either sells the migrants to a slaveholder or becomes the slaveholder him or herself.  Determining whether a person has been trafficked or smuggled is often a complicated process that is based on the determination of three factors: the use or threat of force, fraud or coercion. People are recruited in several different ways such as through fake employment agencies, acquaintances, newspaper ads, front businesses, word of mouth or abduction. Traffickers may be neighbors, friends, returnees, agricultural operators, owners of small businesses, diplomats and even families.

Increasingly, however, the traffickers are organized crime syndicates, often in collaboration with corrupt law enforcement entities, government officials or employers, who may use several intermediaries from the first point of contact to the final destination of the victim. If the victim is transported, they use both legal and illegal means of transport and various techniques to keep their victim enslaved. They may keep them under lock and key or in isolation from the public and from their family members or support networks, confiscate their passports or identification documents, use the threat of violence against the enslaved person or their families, threaten them with shame, fear of imprisonment or deportation, and control their money.  Human trafficking has grown in part as a result of the advances in internet and communication technology, which make information fast, anonymous, and easily accessible to predators and traffickers worldwide. According to Moisés Naím, author of Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy “…the modern-day slave auction is electronic, wherein local pimps can examine and purchase via e-mail women and girls from wholesalers in other countries and where retail customers can order up the prostitute of their choice.” Sex tourism, one of the world’s largest industries, also feeds off of electronic communications and human trafficking. It has become integrated into the economy of many countries such as the Philippines and Thailand. These examples underscore that trafficking and slavery truly represent the commodification of human beings, or the use of human beings as goods to be bought, sold, used, shipped, and traded for money. 

While it may be difficult to believe that modern-day slavery and human trafficking exist in the United States in the 21st century, the fact is that it is present in every state, in both our urban and rural areas. Traffickers exploit the migration process, using legal or forged documents, often making use of visas like the temporary guest worker visas, fiancés visas, domestic workers or others to bring in women and children for prostitution, and women and men for forced labor. Some enter with no documentation at all. Most of the trafficking victims discovered in the U.S. have immigrated to the US, either by choice or by force, but there are even some trafficking victims who were born in the United States. There are an estimated 12,500 trafficking victims who came to the U.S. from East and South Asia in 2005. Approximately 5,500 more came from Latin America, and another 5,000 from the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the latter is considered a new source of women and children for prostitution and the sex industry. 


Human trafficking is a devastating human rights violation and a human tragedy, but social workers can help in at least three ways: 1. identify victims of slavery and trafficking and assist them to get help, 2. serve in the organizations that specialize in assisting trafficking victims and improving upon the current ‘promising practices’ of rehabilitation and reintegration, and 3. educate vulnerable populations about the dangers of human trafficking as a form of prevention. All of these roles need to be filled in every community where human trafficking exists in order to locate victims, help them rebuild their lives, prevent others from being trafficked and enslaved, and end this horrific crime once and for all.

1. Identifying Victims: Despite legislation outlawing trafficking, finding and helping victims to escape is a complex process. Most trafficking victims don’t understand their rights, are fearful of people in law enforcement, fear repercussions to themselves and their families if they incur the wrath of their trafficker and are not aware of agency or community resources that may advocate for them. Furthermore, they may be deported as ‘illegal aliens’ if they refuse to testify against their trafficker. Social workers serve as a key access point to services in the social and health care systems; they also have an important role to play in helping to identify individuals who may be trafficking victims and assisting them to obtain needed services. Learning to ask the right questions and looking for small clues that may suggest a person is coerced into a life of sexual exploitation or forced labor forms the basis for identifying a victim.

The victim or trafficking survivor typically experiences psychological trauma that can upset the individual’s physical and mental ability to respond to stress and danger. This in turn can lead to the survival reactions of “fight, flight, or freeze,” often making it difficult to diagnose an individual’s needs. After identifying a trafficking victim, social workers need to make appropriate referrals to social service provision and advocacy groups specializing in assisting trafficking survivors. Survivors each have some critical decisions to make, including whether they wish to collaborate with law enforcement officials. Such decisions affect whether survivors are eligible for support services and for a visa to stay in the US, but also may affect their own safety or the safety of their loved ones in their countries of origin. These high stakes require that social workers and relevant agencies have accurate and up-to-date information to share with survivors so they can make informed decisions. Victims, especially victims of sex trafficking, are sometimes reluctant to discuss the circumstances of their trafficking. This may be due to the stigma attached to commercial sex or simple shame at the nature of the degradation. The reluctance of victims to share their stories can make it more difficult to gather the information necessary to provide them with an appropriate referral.

2. Organizations That Specialize in Assisting Trafficking Victims: Essential services for a survivor include:

  • immediate assistance such as housing, food, medical care, safety and security;
  • mental health counseling;
  • reconnecting with supportive family members;
  • cash assistance; and
  • legal status assistance with visa certification and immigration.

Issues of culture, power, privilege, and oppression all play a role in the relationships that social workers develop with survivors. Understanding the journey and the experiences they have endured, including the historical, cultural, social and economic context of the survivor’s life are essential to working effectively with a survivor of trafficking. Social workers need to be flexible in how they work with a survivor, many of whom come from cultures that do not use Western models of counseling and therapy. Taking into account issues of language, religious practices, race/ethnicity, class, customs, and values are all important variables that will impact the effectiveness of a social worker providing services to a trafficking survivor. Social service providers working directly with trafficking survivors should also know the details of the anti-trafficking law in the United States and the survivor’s country of origin in order to help survivors make informed decisions and navigate the bureaucracy when needed.

In the US, the Trafficking Victims and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) became law at the national level in October 2000. It focused specifically on concerns relating to human trafficking and created the tools to enable the U.S. government to address the prosecution of traffickers, protections for victims of human trafficking, and prevention of human trafficking. The law was amended in 2003 to eliminate, among other provisions, the requirement that a victim between the ages of 15-18 must cooperate with the prosecution of his or her trafficker in order to be eligible for a T-visa. Trafficking victims are often uncovered through investigations into housing code enforcement, worker safety, and commercial sexual activity. Recognizing that these investigations are usually conducted by state and local authorities, many states have enacted or are considering enacting anti-trafficking legislation. The ‘best practices’ in helping trafficking survivors rebuild their lives are still being researched, tested and written. Therefore, social workers have a role in identifying ‘promising practices,’ improving upon them, and reporting lessons learned with other practitioners.

3. Educating Vulnerable Populations About the Dangers of Human Trafficking: Even social workers who do not work directly with an anti-trafficking organization have an important prevention role to play. Many social workers come into regular contact with populations that are most vulnerable to slavery and can raise their awareness of the dangers of being trafficked or exploited after their arrival in the U.S. and of the resources available to help them. Social workers bring special expertise in understanding the systemic issues that are implicit in assisting victims of trafficking and can become strong advocates for this diverse and underserved population.

From the Ohio Attorney General's Office - Ohio Runaways At-Risk for Human Trafficking, Report Finds

(COLUMBUS, Ohio) — One in three Ohio runaways gone for two weeks or longer is at risk of being trafficked for sex, according to a report released today by the Ohio Trafficking in Persons Study Commission. The Report on the Prevalence of Human Trafficking in Ohio is the first of its kind to quantify the statewide problem.

“These are disturbing facts,” said Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, chairman of the commission. “According to the report, it is estimated that in Ohio more than a thousand young people between the ages 12 and 17 have been trafficked into the sex trade over the course of a year. This is clear evidence that we need to do more, much more, to protect our youth in Ohio.”

The report, compiled by the Commission’s Research and Analysis Subcommittee, gives for the first time estimates of the number of individuals in Ohio who are being trafficked as well as the number of those who could be vulnerable to traffickers.

“We have been trying to tackle a problem based on insufficient data,” said Cordray. “This report, while still just a start, gives us a basis from which to move forward. We can now discuss the issue with better knowledge and deeper understanding of the scope of the problem.”

The report includes a snapshot of identified Ohio human trafficking cases, including labor and sex trafficking, and a breakdown of at-risk groups: foreign-born people here legally or illegally, domestic violence victims, runaways and homeless youth.

The subcommittee presented four observations for consideration by the larger commission:
•Ohio’s response to child sex trafficking is weak.
•Ohio’s first responders to human trafficking remain unaware and unprepared and services are insufficient.
•Those who purchase youth remain protected, receive minimal charges and are rarely prosecuted in a significant way, while traffickers also suffer minimal consequences.
•Ohio’s young people are highly vulnerable to trafficking.
Research and Analysis Subcommittee members are: Celia Williamson, Sub-Committee Chairperson, Ph.D., University of Toledo; Sharvari Karandikar-Chheda, Ph.D., Ohio State University; Jeff Barrows, M.D., Gracehaven House; Trisha Smouse, Ohio State University; Gene Kelly, Clark County Sheriff; Peter Swartz, Toledo Police Department; Nadia Lucchin, Not for Sale Campaign; and Mark Ballard, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

To read the report in full, click

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