by Rupa Khetarpal & Amber Berkowitz of the Center on Violence Against Women & Children
Human trafficking is an insidious, widespread yet under recognized human rights violation, with estimates that 25 million people are trafficked around the globe, including the U.S. (Polaris Project). As we enter #2021, we recognize January as Human Trafficking Awareness month. It is an opportunity to recognize the urgency and impact of human trafficking as well as the opportunities for social workers to help find solutions. Organizations such as Rutgers Center on Violence Against Women and Children are contributing to the efforts to raise awareness and prevention of human trafficking by disseminating information in various ways including on the web, and participating in the creation of a multi-disciplinary trafficking diversion program led by the International Human Rights Clinic at Rutgers Law School, Newark, which aims at allowing survivors of trafficking arrested for prostitution an alternative to prosecution.
Human trafficking occurs when traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts (sex trafficking) or labor services (labor trafficking) or domestic servitude. Sex trafficking is what most commonly comes to mind when discussing human trafficking, yet the realities of forced migration, country displacement, economic oppression, and structural racism all play a part in allowing various forms of trafficking to persist. Oftentimes victims are forced, threatened, or manipulated by promises of safety, love, affection, shelter, or drugs to engage in sex, labor, or other acts.
It is one of the most underreported crimes and can be difficult to detect, yet it is one of the most profitable and organized crimes that generates a revenue of billions of dollars- more lucrative than dealing drugs or guns (Polaris, 2020). The U.S. has seen increasing numbers of children being sexually exploited, referred interchangeably to as domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) or commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), of the more than 23,500 endangered runaways reported to NCMEC in 2019, one in six were likely victims of child sex trafficking. Child sex trafficking has been reported in all of the 50 states and the average age of child sex trafficking victims reported missing to NCMEC is 15 years (NCMEC, 2020). Social media plays a pivotal role in traffickers victimizing vulnerable, young people. Victims of trafficking have been recruited through social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Craigslist, and online dating apps (Psychology Today, 2019). Traffickers groom their victims by befriending them at malls, sporting events, or through social media over a long period of time and eventually, knows enough about the victim to be able to manipulate and convince their victim to show up willingly.
Trafficking victims can be of any gender, age, race, or socioeconomic background. However, research indicates that groups marginalized by race, income, gender identity, sexual orientation and immigration status are more vulnerable to trafficking (CDC, 2020; Polaris, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has likely increased the risk for marginalized individuals to experience trafficking due to health and economic disparities, fueled by systemic forms of oppression such as racism, heterosexism, xenophobia and transphobia (see blog by The Polaris Project). International and domestic trafficking survivors experience long term adverse physical and mental health outcomes. The lack of adequate prevention and response strategies available to address this public health problem further exacerbates the harmful impact.
Social workers have opportunities to be involved in creating social change related to trafficking in a number of ways. Survivors of human trafficking have complex needs that involve both short and long-term services. Interdisciplinary and collaborative work between the multiple systems including law enforcement, healthcare, education (including language access) and employment, immigration, housing, legal advocacy, faith-based and social services, is necessary to provide an effective and comprehensive response. Through a strengths-based framework, social workers can engage in prevention efforts, educating children and communities on the dangers of sex trafficking, online safety and challenging existent myths and misconceptions about trafficking. Informed by the diverse cultural identities of survivors, social workers can educate themselves about the impact of trauma and victimization, the barriers to accessing services and the complex experiences that guide help seeking behaviors. Prevention efforts could involve promoting community awareness aimed at reducing the demand for commercial sex, thereby, diminishing the economic profits of traffickers while cultivating healthy behaviors in relationships and families.
Designing and implementing culturally relevant and trauma informed strategies to assess, identify and intervene with survivors can be effective. These strategies may include trust building relationships between survivors and service providers, maintaining a client centered approach, multidisciplinary teams and utilization of evidence based interventions that focus on preserving client dignity and worth. Through actively adopting an anti- racist framework acknowledging the intersectionality of identities, social workers can challenge the deeply embedded oppressive policies and beliefs that disempower marginalized communities and individuals, create barriers to access and maintain inequitable societies. Social workers can engage in policy advocacy at the local, state and national levels and examine the efficacy of existent policies in alleviating and eliminating this problem. Finally, building organizational competence in developing policies and protocols that appropriately identify and assist survivors while preventing further exploitation can create meaningful change and ensure a safer environment for all.
Each and every act of trafficking needs to be taken seriously. Together we can raise awareness, spread the word, and educate one another on the signs of trafficking to keep our youths safe. Join the Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign #WearBlueDay on January 11 in order to spread the word about trafficking.
National Human Trafficking Resource Center: https://humantraffickinghotline.org/type-trafficking/sex-trafficking