Author: Meredith Hemphill
January is National Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Department of Homeland Security has declared January 11th Wear Blue Day to raise awareness of this often-invisible crime. Human trafficking, also called trafficking in persons, is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain labor or commercial sex acts from a person. Millions of adults and children are trafficked every year, all over the world, including right here in North Carolina. The National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 223 cases involving 340 victims in North Carolina in 2021; 51 of the victims were children.
There are two main forms of human trafficking: forced labor and sex trafficking. Forced labor occurs in many different industries, including manufacturing, domestic work, agriculture, hospitality, and food services. Sometimes people are lured with promises of a high-paying job, only to have their identifying documents confiscated when they arrive and then be forced to work for little or no pay in miserable conditions. A technique called “debt bondage” traps people in a cycle of working to pay off a debt that they will never actually be allowed to repay. Threats to family members, violence, restriction of movement, isolation, and threats of deportation are other common tactics.
Sex trafficking exploits people to perform commercial sex acts. Traffickers use a variety of physical, psychological, and economic manipulation tactics to ensnare victims, even feigning romantic relationships or friendships to build trust. Importantly, when anyone under the age of 18 is engaged in commercial sex acts, it is considered human trafficking regardless of whether an element of force, fraud, or coercion is involved. Children are not able to consent to sex work.
Human trafficking victims can be anyone, and stereotypes about who can or can’t be a victim of this crime only jeopardize prevention and remediation efforts. For example, there is a common assumption that women and girls are the victims of human trafficking. In fact, boys are the fastest growing group of identified human trafficking victims, and both men and boys who have been trafficked are less likely to be identified and receive fewer services if they do escape because of this stereotype. People also tend to associate human trafficking only with sex trafficking, but a Polaris survey led by human trafficking survivors found that 59% of respondents were labor trafficking survivors.
In the United States, the people most vulnerable to human trafficking are:
• Children in the child welfare/foster system or who have encountered the juvenile justice system
• Runaway and homeless children and young adults
• People without lawful immigration status
• Migrant laborers
• Native Americas, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders
• Members of the LGBTQIA+ community
• People with disabilities
• People with substance use disorder
Human trafficking and human smuggling are often confused, and they can occur together, but they are not the same. Human smuggling is the crime of bringing people across international borders in defiance of immigration laws, typically for financial gain. The people being smuggled consented to participate, but they can be vulnerable to human trafficking during the process. Smugglers may sell their clients to traffickers after crossing the border. Human smuggling and human trafficking are distinct, but sometimes connected, crimes.
What Can You Do About Human Trafficking?
Know the Warning Signs
Human trafficking is a crime that can hide in plain sight. If you know the warning signs, you may be able to help law enforcement intervene. Victims of human trafficking may:
• Be constantly accompanied by another person who speaks for them.
• Have an inconsistent story about themselves or talk like they were “coached.”
• Act scared, submissive, withdrawn, nervous, confused, disoriented, or paranoid.
• Show indications of physical abuse, such as bruises in various stages of healing.
• Appear malnourished.
• Have few or no personal possessions.
• Stop attending school, in the case of minors.
• Be unable to move or travel freely.
If you witness a possible victim of human trafficking, DO NOT try to approach them yourself unless you are trained to do so. Don’t wait for them to ask for help, either. Victims of human trafficking may be too afraid to reach out or so thoroughly conditioned to accept their circumstances that they don’t realize they should. You can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or federal law enforcement at 1-866-347-2423 to report the suspicious activity. Try to provide as many details as possible. License plate numbers are particularly helpful.
Be a Conscientious Consumer
Forced labor, including child labor, has wormed its way into many industries worldwide. You can do your part as a consumer by doing your research and avoiding products that were made or harvested with forced labor. The Bureau of International Labor Affairs keeps a list of goods produced by child labor or forced labor which is a good place to start. This is easier to manage for some products than others because certain industries are rife with human trafficking. And cheaper products are more likely to be made with forced labor, unfortunately, because not paying the workers really cuts down on overhead costs. There are tools to make it easier for you, though. You can look for products that are labeled as Fair Trade when you’re shopping. Simply reducing your consumption—reduce, reuse, recycle—helps as well.