Most of us have the wrong idea of how and why human trafficking happens. Thanks to Hollywood movies, it's easy to think that victims of human trafficking are snatched off the street by strangers in masks. The reality, however, is more insidious than that: most victims know their trafficker in some capacity — and are psychologically "prepped" gradually, before they find themselves trapped in illicit and exploitative activities.
Read on to learn more about:
- definition/types of human trafficking
- vulnerable populations targeted by human trafficking
- the stages of the human trafficking process
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"Trafficking In Persons" As Defined By The US Department Of Justice
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines "trafficking in persons" in two parts:
a) Sex trafficking in which commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or
b) The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.
Types Of Human Trafficking
Aside from the relatively rare human organ harvesting and smuggling, most cases and types of human trafficking fall into two general categories: "forced labor trafficking" and "sex trafficking".
Forced Labor Trafficking
Forced labor involves being trapped into indentured servitude through threats, coercion, or unfair deals like the impossible-to-get-out-of "debt bondage". Most typically, forced labor involves either domestic servitude (cleaning, childcare, eldercare, etc.) in private homes or heavy manual labor (agricultural, manufacturing, construction, hospitality, etc.) in dangerous or unregulated work conditions.
The majority of victims of forced labor come from outside the US (typically from developing countries) -- some as recent immigrants, some as undocumented/smuggled migrants.
Sex trafficking takes up the bulk share of human trafficking crimes. It predominantly targets women and children for illicit commercial sexual exploitation in strip clubs, brothels, escort services, massage parlors, and other unregulated/illegal environments and events (such as the annual Super Bowl, which is notorious for having massive numbers of sex slaves brought in from all over the country just for the occasion).
As the Polaris Project put it in their 2019 report on sex trafficking in the country: "a shocking number of these victims are citizens of the United States."
Sex trafficking often overlaps with forced labour trafficking, as trafficked sex workers experience sexual abuse as part of being exploited for labor (sexual but also drug dealing and other forms of illegal work).
Minors under the age of 18 working in the sex industry are automatically considered victims of child sex trafficking, as children cannot legally consent to illegal acts (even if force, coercion, or fraud were not technically used to recruit them into the trade).
Who Are The Typical Victims Of Human Trafficking?
Technically, human trafficking can happen to anyone. However, traffickers do prefer to "recruit" their victims from certain situations/conditions/backgrounds that are on the "less fortunate" side of things.
Discover how to indentify human trafficking perpetrators here.
The Global Poor And Social Minorities
Around the world, human traffickers go after populations particularly devastated by economic hardship, coupled with unfortunate circumstances like natural disasters and volatile social conditions like war, government coup, or prevalent corruption among authorities. In several nations girls as still subjected to child marriages, and children of both genders are kidnapped into becoming child soldiers and servants to war/crime lords.
In tandem with going after the poor, traffickers target the disenfranchised social minority groups (e.g. race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.) and other marginalized groups (e.g. persons with disability) -- because the disappearances of these victims are less likely to garner serious investigation or public attention.
Read more on the effects of human trafficking on the economy.
Who Is Vulnerable In The US?
In the US, traffickers target teenagers and young adults who are already neglected or mistreated: young women and men who have already been sexually abused or suffered from homelessness or substance dependencies or domestic violence, or who had been products of the child welfare/juvenile justice systems.
In a nutshell, traffickers go after individuals lacking in family and social support -- who are extremely unhappy "where they are" in life and are desperately looking for a way out. Teen runaways/"throwaways" are especially easily "absorbed" into the world of trafficking, since they had already been missing from their homes for some time, so their disappearance into sex trafficking goes unnoticed.
Who Are The Traffickers?
Human trafficking is closely tied to organized crime and the underworld of pimps. However, the specific individuals who deliver victims into the corrupt hands of trafficking "entrepreneurs" are not always professional thugs. They are often opportunistic family members, friends, and intimate partners who usher kids and young adults (mostly young women and girls) into the sordid world of sex trafficking -- in exchange for money or drugs.
The Stages Of The Human Trafficking Process
Traffickers sniff out their victims in public places popular with the young and the desperate: malls, bars/nightclubs, bus stations, homeless shelters, methadone clinics.
Traffickers tend to befriend their targets — or get the existing sex trafficking victims to buddy up to them. At other times, a male trafficker may enter into a romantic relationship with a young woman in order to exert his influence and dominance through alternately showing and withholding affection (and having children together ensures that the victim will not report the trafficker to the authorities).
Sometimes victims come to the traffickers, answering an ad promising a too-good-to-be-true job of a "model" or a "dancer". Of course, these "glamorous opportunities" all result in being forced to perform commercial sex work — but, by the time the victims become aware of what is happening, they have already lost control and are being caused serious harm.
The "casing" of vulnerable victims is the first step in the process of entrapping a victim into being trafficked. Let's go through each of the four stages.
Stage 1: Recruiting/Luring
As mentioned, human trafficking begins with traffickers assessing potential victims on the basis of their vulnerability — and then luring them into a friendship or romantic relationship, by giving them false hope for a better life.
The traffickers start off sweet and cool: they bring gifts, tell compliments, pay for things, offer to help, and make bold promises. This is all to gain their victim's trust.
During all those "generous" interactions, the trafficker is also collecting their victim's personal information about home life, friend and family support systems, etc. — to use against the victim at a later date.
Stage 2: Grooming/Gaming
Amidst all the favors, the traffickers begin to slip in offers for "great opportunities" for "easy work" that would bring money, glamour, and prestige. Of course, these are all false promises — but the victims are desperate enough to believe them.
The trafficker begins to expose the victim to the commercial sex industry, through pornography, for example, or, if the trafficker is having a romantic relationship with the victim, by introducing more and more "tricks of the trade" into their sex life. This is to get the victim to perceive the escalating sexual mistreatments and indignities as "normal" life. It works: in time, victims grow more used to being around sex work — until one day they are performing sex work.
Stage 3: Trafficking
The manipulation continues and now, the victim is being fully "trafficked." One way or another, they are being made to perform commercial sex acts, sometimes with violent customers.
They are no longer in control of where they live and how they spend their time away from work. Their IDs and travel documents may have been seized. They have likely been moved to other locations away from the familiar, so that they don't even know where they are and, at any rate, lack the freedom of movement. The controllers often use the victim's personal information to threaten violence to their family, relying on fear to keep them in line.
Stage 4: Immersion Into Exploitation
By this final stage of trafficking, the victim's spirit has been broken and they have accepted sexual and physical abuse and exploitation as part of their new reality.
This resigned psychological state keeps many victims from self-reporting their trafficking situation; some of them accept their lot to such an extreme, they think of themselves as willing participants within the trafficking culture. The trauma bonding to/fear of their victimizers keeps them loyal; being terrified of authorities keeps them from seeking help; having nowhere to turn keeps them from even trying to make a break for it.
Prevent Human Trafficking In Your Business!
The US government is passing more legislature to punish trafficking — and companies should do their part in the fight by providing appropriate training to their staff!
Consider EasyLlama's human trafficking prevention training. It's easy yet impactful and lasting anti-human-trafficking e-training for your employees and supervisors. They can take the course straight from their cellphones — and quickly learn all they need to know to recognize human trafficking practices, report them, and stay away from doing business with other companies proliferating this awful crime.
Written by: Maria Malyk