Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons through use of force, coercion, deception or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them. In the United States, the number of trafficked victims is largely unknown, but we do know that every day more vulnerable people are trafficked into the sex trade and labor industry. In 2013, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline received multiple reports of human trafficking cases in all 50 states and D.C.
As cases of human trafficking increase, domestic violence programs are likely encountering human trafficking victims, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Due to the limited housing options available, many adult female trafficking victims are placed in shelter or housing programs that traditionally serve victims of domestic violence and sexual assault (Salvation Army, 2006). Few advocates are trained on human trafficking and may not know what signs to look for to correctly identify these victims. As a result, survivors may not have access to the specialized services, special protections, and guidance they need to gain safety and justice.
Similarities & Differences
There are similarities between domestic violence and human trafficking that can lead to misidentification of victims.
What most notably differentiates trafficking from domestic violence is 1) that trafficking often involves multiple offenders rather than a single abuser, and 2) the levels of endangerment and legal remedies available are very different for trafficked victims.
Screening & Identification
These similarities can make the identification of a victim of human trafficking challenging. The most common and perhaps obvious challenge to identifying victims of human trafficking for those in the field is the hidden nature of the crime. Both international and domestic victims are often kept isolated, with no freedom of movement. There are some victims that are hidden in plain sight. They may have a seemingly legal job at a hotel, factory, or restaurant, but are actually working for little or no pay. It is also hard to identify them because in most cases the general signs may not be apparent. In order to work with these challenges, we must have a clear understanding of what human trafficking is and what the possible signs look like. Some of these can include:
- Lack of identity (especially passport) and immigration (visa, permit) documents. It may also be the case that the victim has false documents.
- Absence or lack of money, without any control over it (as it is controlled by the trafficker or pimp).
- Inability to move elsewhere or leave their job.
- Isolation from family and members of their ethnic or religious community.
- Inability to communicate freely with friends or family.
- Paying excessively for their trip to the US normally paid in the form of debt.
- Social isolation in the form of limited contact with outsiders or the establishment of measures to monitor all contact or to ensure that all communications are only superficial.
On June of 2014, the Vera Institute of Justice, unveiled a comprehensive screening tool for victim service providers and law enforcement when faced with someone who may be a victim of human trafficking. This screening tool is part of VAWnet’s recently updated Special Collection on Human Trafficking.
Services & Supports
Identifying a victim of human trafficking is the first step. The next is to seek social supports, services, and legal remedies available to them. In their document titled Trafficking: Considerations & Recommendations For Battered Women’s Advocates, The Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence recommends determining which services and program activities can be provided immediately by your organization such as:
- Obtaining proper identification documents,
- Getting haircuts and clothes that make them less identifiable by the traffickers,
- Enhancing basic life skills (many women come from poor rural areas and may not know the basics of cooking and cleaning in a shelter setting),
- Providing access to ESL (English as a Second Language) training resources, and
- Offering counseling to address trauma.
Also, it is important for domestic violence programs providing safe shelter to victims of human trafficking to think about developing procedures for handling exceptions in the shelter. Exceptions may include reconsidering the length of stay, making international calling to families in the home country available for residents, and disclosing the victim’s location to collaborating agencies so that interpreters, bi-lingual advocates, and government agents involved in the investigation or in the transportation of residents can have access to them.
Remember, all survivors of violence and abuse can benefit from a survivor-centered empowerment-based approach.
If you need assistance or think you may have encountered a victim of human trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text to BeFree (233733) for specialized victim service referrals.
From your experience, what other signs or red flags can domestic violence advocates look for when working with a potential victim of human trafficking?