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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Myths of Trafficking

There are some misconceptions about what human trafficking, and what the fight against human trafficking, looks like. We talked to one of our undercover investigators about one of them. There is also the somewhat pervasive idea that perhaps only women and girls are trafficked for sex . And while sex trafficking has gained awareness in the public consciousness, child marriage also makes up a significant portion of those trafficked worldwide.

The UN agency International Office for Migration has a lot of resources to educate people about trafficking and safe migration. We found this video series on the Myths of Trafficking to be particularly helpful in debunking some common misconceptions of what trafficking looks like.

MYTH# 1 Trafficking for sexual exploitation only happens to girls and women

MYTH # 2 Victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation are usually kidnapped

MYTH #3 Victims are usually physically trapped in situations of exploitation.

MYTH #4 If individuals are not being physically forced, then they must be there by choice.

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Causes of Trafficking

In today’s modern world, the term slavery generally brings to mind impressions of an archaic past. The word itself, rightfully loaded with tones of suffering and pain, strikes distant memories of settlers, western colonization, or visualizations of even older eras when slavery was simply the norm. People often equate the idea of slavery with Atlantic slave ships and shackled, kidnapped people. These horrific images of captivity were real. This happened. And it’s important to remember that these cruelties occurred not that long ago. But it’s also salient to note that slavery still exists today. Although enslavement might look different in a modern context, slavery continues.

But how does this happen? What causes human trafficking?

Modern slavery is the result of a complex combination of social, economic, and often cultural factors that result in the entrapment of people. The U.S. Department of State says that:

Modern slavery can appear in the form of sex trafficking, child exploitation, unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers, forced labor, domestic servitude, bonded labor, or debt bondage.

Last year, the world was shocked to discover that hundreds of people were being auctioned as slaves in Libya. This was a devastating reminder that even the most deplorable forms of slavery persist, reflecting even a darker historic period of bondage.

Modern slavery occurs due to a range of interconnected causes. Although there’s a complex scope of factors that contribute to modern day slavery, two underlying variables keeps the industry’s heart pumping — the traffickers themselves and the demand that motivates them.

Human trafficking is a global industry that circulates billions of dollars in profits each year. It could be argued that the main factor that drives slavery to exist today is those who are willing to exploit and enslave other human beings. Understanding the problem with demand could be the most crucial component in deteriorating the prevalence of slavery. This demand for modern slavery only exists due to a billion-dollar incentive that produces the need for traffickers. The market endorses slavery through consumption, and individuals financially enable traffickers to continue their dark trade. Ultimately, the thousands of buyers or industries with a demand for cheap labor around the world are the base purpose driving traffickers to seek out their victims.

But it’s still not that simple. Other contributing elements exacerbate the problem. Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable of people. Marginalized groups are easy targets due to harrowing life circumstances. Perpetrators seek out those who are marginalized for a number of reasons. They often prey on those whose lives have been torn apart by war, natural disasters, or economic desperations. They search for those or more easily come in contact with those who can be easily coerced into taking jobs that could then easily devolve into human trafficking. Victims routinely come from backgrounds of persecution, conflict, or other forms of marginalization.

The reality is that when victims don’t have the capacity to provide for themselves and their families, crime syndicates and operators could take advantage of their plight and force them into trafficking.

While the UN recognizes that the refugee crisis, conflict, and poverty all play roles in causing slavery today, some societies have built-in cultural characteristics that can increase the probability of trafficking of individuals. Societies that devalue women, certain ethnic groups or the LGTBQ community, can raise the probability of people being made vulnerable and susceptible to being targeted. It’s clear that women are frequently singled out due to the demand in the sex industry. Of course, men and boys are also trafficked, but women and girls are statistically sought out more often. According to the International Labour Organization, “women and girls are disproportionately affected by forced labor, accounting for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58% in other sectors.”

It’s true, the modern world is unrecognizable compared to the period of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Advanced technology has improved our medicine and life expectancy. There is overall consensus that we should protect universal human rights, and, according to many experts, violence has statistically declined. But in a world where an estimated 40.3 million people are in modern slavery, there is still outrage. We won’t settle for anything less than justice. Our collective LIFT team has expertise with investigations, aftercare and legal support, so that is what we focus on. Demand-side efforts and advocacy are a huge part of the solution. Partnership is crucial to address the root causes and reality of the after effects of trafficking in the lives of individuals all at once. We join many other organizations and advocates who still endeavor to combat slavery whenever, and wherever, it’s found.

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