Signs of Trafficking


If you live in an urban area, you probably encounter hundreds of people every day. Imagine your commute. Are you often crammed, rubbing shoulders with strangers commuting to work on a busy subway? Or perhaps you drive your car through bustling traffic, fighting through lights and other rushed citizens all sharing what seems to be a shrinking road. Maybe you walk to work? Having to push by dozens of others who are also lucky enough to be a short stroll from their offices. Consider the crowds of people all hustling to get by, lost in their own daily grind. 

It’s possible that somewhere in the midst of those thousands of other working individuals is a person who is also working—but not by their own choice. Research shows that there’s around 40.3 million people trafficked in the world today -- forced labor, domestic servitude or sexual exploitation (child marriage, when included, pushes the figure up to 45 million).

Sometimes, situations that don’t look quite right in our daily commutes and lives. The problem is that most of us don’t know what we’re seeing. We simply don’t know how to identify whether a suspicious person we see is being trafficked. Experts say that it’s important to know how to spot the signs when we encounter a potential trafficking victim.

There have recently been several instances of bystanders reporting suspected human trafficking that resulted in victims being identified and removed from harm. An Alaska Airlines flight attendant reported one such case that resulted in a woman being identified as trafficked and assisted. On the other hand, a Hawaii Airlines flight attendant recently reported a similar case to the FBI that ended up not being human trafficking. This shows that it’s okay and important to make a report, but not necessarily act on it on your own. “Even though it’s hard to let it go,” said Andrea Hobart, a trainer for Airline Ambassador, “you transfer it into the hands of the authorities and they’ll pursue the case.”

According to the U.S. State Department, there’s not a comprehensive list of signs, but there are some red flags that can be helpful when trying to determine whether or not you’re encountering someone who’s potentially been trafficked. The U.S. State Department lists:

  •          Living with employer

  •          Poor living conditions

  •          Multiple people in cramped space

  •          Inability to speak to individual alone

  •          Answers appear to be scripted and rehearsed

  •          Employer is holding identity documents

  •          Signs of physical abuse

  •          Submissive or fearful

  •          Unpaid or paid very little

  •       Under 18 and in prostitution (no one under the age of 18 can consent)

Some other signs are a little harder to spot. However, anti-trafficking NGOs have indicated more detailed signs that are nonetheless equally important in identifying a possible victim of trafficking. The signs below from CNN’s Freedom Project require more nuance, need a bit explanation, but are still crucial:

 Not dressed appropriately -- If you’re traveling across the country or internationally and you notice a person who doesn’t fit in with the rest of those around them, it might be right to look a little deeper. For example, if they’re not dressed appropriately for their course of travel and they look disheveled and disoriented.

Scripted Communication -- Often traffickers will instruct their victims to avoid saying anything that could give them away. They do this by conditioning their victims to recite a perfect story. Something that’s too clear and cut to make sense given the situation. If it sounds overly acted, performed, then it might be.

Inability, or desire, to communicate with others while in the presence of a “guardian” or parent figure. Obvious fear to speak to others. Intimidation is key in controlling victims. Perpetrators generally prevent their victims from speaking to others in public as defense mechanism for themselves.

Works excessively long hours -- Victims of trafficking often have strange hours that don’t make a lot of sense to us. Whether they have vague night jobs that they can’t discuss in detail, or they simply look noticeably exhausted.

Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior -- If you encounter someone who’s clearly been either abused, or showing signs of poor health in an unfitting context, that person might warrant a bit more suspicion. Intense anxiety, depression, submissive behavior, or paranoia are signs that something could be terribly wrong.

It’s important to note that many of these signs have other causes other than trafficking. It’s best to have a balanced assessment, taking into consideration many factors, while trying to identify more than one sign. If you do feel that you’ve encountered a victim of trafficking, the safest thing you can do for both the victim, and yourself, is to alert authorities and law enforcement.

In Thailand, you can call Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division at 1191 or the Social Assistance Center at 1300. 

In the US, you can submit a tip online, text 233733 or call 888-373-7888

In New Zealand, you can call your local police or 111 in an emergency.  

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