Can you spot them? Would you be able to pick them out of a crowd? Can you tell which person on the street is actively entangled in human trafficking? While you may want to answer with a resounding “YES!” I know for a fact that the majority of people will answer “No.” The reason that so few of us can actually identify either those being trafficked or those doing the trafficking is because… it could be anybody.
There isn’t a certain age, race, gender, or nationality that trademarks those ensnared in this crime. There isn’t a one-size fits all label that you can attach to the people who find themselves caught up in human trafficking. The traffickers could be anybody, not just the ones that fit the stereotype. And while the victims can sometimes be easier to spot, that’s not always the case. They too could be anybody, not just the girls on the street corners or in the advertisements online.
So how can we begin to train our eyes to be able to see past the surface and spot those that are either being trafficked or are the traffickers themselves? For starters we can remove the stereotypes that have embedded themselves in our brains of what these people should look and act like. When we remove that filter we can begin to see a deeper layer of a person’s character. Although we might not like what we end up seeing…
Those trapped in trafficking are not just young women. Anyone can be trafficked. According to U.S. law “victims of human trafficking can be divided into three populations:
- Children under the age of 18 induced into commercial sex
- Adults (age 18 or over) induced into commercial sex through force, fraud, or coercion
- Children and adults induced to perform labor or services through force, fraud, or coercion”1
They have also identified victims “in cities, suburbs, and rural areas in all 50 states, and in Washington, D.C.”1.1 There is no one type of person that can identify themselves as a victim of human trafficking; and there is no one box that you can sort them all into, or only one spot that you will find them.
While there is no one type of person that fits the “victim of human trafficking” stereotype, there are a few circumstances that can cause one person to be at a higher risk of being trafficked than another. Those circumstances are:
- Runaway/Homeless Youth – “A study in Chicago found that 56 percent of prostituted women were initially runaway youthand similar numbers have been identified for male populations.” 2 Runaway youth lack the proper support systems; which can then leave them unprotected and open to traffickers who will feign love and affection to elicit sex or other services from them.
- Foreign Nationals – Many of these people will have come from overseas with the promise of a new life and a good job. However once they arrive, the people who “sponsored” them will take away their passports/identification and visas and force them to work off the “debt” that they incurred while travelling over.
- Trauma and Abuse – “Victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, war and conflict or social discrimination may be targeted by traffickers, who recognize the vulnerabilities left by these prior abuses. Violence and abuse may be normalized or beliefs of shame or unworthiness lead to future susceptibility to human trafficking.”3
As you can see, it’s not always so cut and dry when it comes to figuring out who has been trafficked; or what makes one person more susceptible to it than another. While things can get a little hazy with trying to spot those who are being trafficked; you enter an even greyer area when it comes to trying to identify the perpetrators.
These people are not just middle aged men with gold jewelry and tattoos, smoking cigars, and locking women in closets. Anyone can traffic. It could be a woman posting an ad online for babysitters and then trapping and selling the girls who apply. It could be a friendly man offering to buy a runaway girl a burger and then convincing her that she now owes him. It could even be a teen age boy that sells the children he’s baby-sitting for sex. There is no cookie-cutter version of a trafficker. You can’t fit them inside your stereotypes. This makes people uncomfortable because we don’t want to think that the people we trust so effortlessly could actually turn out to be involved in this unspeakable crime.
Traffickers rely on their ability to gain the trust of those around them so that not only can they continue to buy and sell people, they can do so without drawing attention to themselves. They are masters of hiding in plain sight, because they are often the people you would least expect to do something so horrendous. However there are instances where the trafficker fits the stereotype, and in those cases it is much easier for people to be able to identify them; even if it is only because of the uneasy feeling you get when you are around them.
Often times “traffickers promise a high-paying job, a loving relationship, or new and exciting opportunities”2 to those they are trying to lure in. Below are just a few case examples of how traffickers put those false promises into action:
- A family in New Jersey recruited more than 20 girls and young women – between the ages of 10 and 17 – from Togo and Ghana to braid hair for up to 14 hours a day for no pay at salons in Newark and East Orange. The exploiters found their victims by identifying families seeking to send their daughters to the United States for school or jobs. The victims’ passports were taken and they were beaten or threatened if they did not return home immediately after work.
- A group of 17 exploiters based in Ohio and Pennsylvania lured women and girls – one victim was 12 years old — with promises of love and wealth, and then trapped them and forced them to become prostitutes in a multi-state prostitution ring based at truck stops.
- A couple in Texas lured a widowed mother of six children, from Nigeria to work in their home. Once she arrived, they confiscated her identification documents and restricted her movement, holding her in domestic servitude for eight years. The victim worked seven days a week, for approximately 16 hours a day for virtually no pay.3
So now that you have just a little bit more information both on what a victim of human trafficking can look like as well as what the trafficker themselves can look like, what do you do with that information?
Well one thing that you shouldn’t do is play a giant game of Where’s Waldo in which you replace Waldo with those involved in trafficking. Another thing you should avoid doing is living your life in fear that everyone you meet could possibly be a trafficker. This is not a call to action for everyone to become a vigilante and try to take down a trafficking ring on your own.
This is a call to awareness.
I want people to take off their blinders and open their eyes so that they can truly see the people around them. I want you to be able to cleanse your mind of the stereotypes that might be there, so that you will be able to spot if something is off when you are interacting with those around you.
What you can do, and what you should do, if you think you’ve spotted either a victim of trafficking or an offender is call the Human Trafficking Hotline or the police, and let them take it from there.
Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888
We need to remove the labels and stereotypes that colour the people that we interact with, so that we are able to see people for who they truly are. Not just what makes us comfortable.