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an overview of human trafficking

*all writing and research credits go to Athlea Ocomen*


Human trafficking happens in every U.S. state. In 2016, 7,500 people were trafficked in the United States, and up to 800,000 are trafficked worldwide each year. Half of these victims are under 18, and most are girls and women. According to The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 51% of identified victims of trafficking are women, 28% children, and 21% men, 72% of people exploited in the sex industry are women, 63% of identified traffickers were men and 37% women, 43% of victims are trafficked domestically within national borders.

Human trafficking is a global and domestic human rights issue that is characterized by economic exploitation through force, fraud, and coercion. A person who is trafficked may be drugged, locked up, beaten, starved, or made to work for many hours a day. A large proportion of victims identified are female, as human trafficking had previously tended to be seen as a crime that affects mostly females who are trafficked for sexual exploitation. This problem is extremely harmful to women all over the world because it destroys future opportunities and steals their innocence. Over time, a higher percentage of men have been identified as it has been acknowledged that men can also be vulnerable to many forms of human trafficking, including sexual exploitation, and the identification of such cases has improved. The proportion of children relative to adults for males and females is about the same. Although boys and men are victims as well, the majority of individuals identified as trafficked for both labor, blackmail, prostitution, and commercial sex are women and girls (U.S. Department of State, 2006). Traffickers lure, manipulate, and control vulnerable individuals using a variety of coercive means.

“Trafficking for sexual exploitation and for forced labor remains the most prominently detected forms, but victims are also being trafficked to be used as beggars, for forced or sham marriages, benefit fraud, or production of pornography”
- UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov.

Traffickers are able to control and manipulate their victims through threatening to harm or kill their families, threatening to have them deported and sold abroad, taking away their passports, birth certificates, and ID cards, making them work to pay back the money they claim is owed to them, giving them drugs in order to create an addiction or control them and then making them perform sexually to get more drugs, or preventing them from having contact with friends, family, or the outside world Sometimes a woman may end up trafficked after being forced to marry someone against her will. In a forced marriage, a woman’s husband and his family have control over her. Not all people who are trafficked are taken across state lines or national borders. Instances like these are especially common in India.

There are many risk factors that are present during human trafficking, especially for those who are living in the most vulnerable and marginalized sectors. These factors can be that the victims who suffer undermine the ability to protect themselves are the people who are most likely to be targeted by criminals and traffickers. The people who disrupt connections to social and family support increase susceptibility to coercion.

Variables that contribute to a person’s vulnerability to being trafficked include membership in a marginalized group or residing in rural areas; prior victimization and trauma; disabilities; immigrant or refugee status; and family disruption or status. These may be magnified by globalization, poverty, political instability, and war. Because of the huge polarization between the rich and the poor, the people who are categorized within these groups are especially targeted.

Human trafficking is a multi-dimensional threat: it deprives people of their human rights and freedoms, it is a global health risk, and it fuels the growth of organized crime. Human trafficking leaves traumatic scars upon its victims, which may be hugely impactful on the course of their life. Trafficked women and girls encounter high rates of physical and sexual violence, including homicide and torture, psychological abuse, horrific work and living conditions, and extreme deprivation while in transit. This may cause them to start normalizing physical, emotional, and verbal abuse from their peers, romantic relationships, and within their environment.

Serious mental health problems result from trafficking, including anxiety, depression, self-injurious behavior, suicidal ideation and suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dissociative disorders, and complex PTSD. Physical symptoms among trafficking victims include neurological issues, gastrointestinal disturbances, respiratory distress, chronic pain, sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV), urogenital problems, dental problems, fractures, and traumatic brain injuries.

The governments of countries such as India and the Philippines have desperately failed to stop the practice of human trafficking, leading to higher rates of crime. Women who are constantly targeted are continuously ignored because of the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding this topic. Instead of properly implementing laws that provide justice for these victims, criminals are not captured and easily slip away from society’s clutches.

In order to effectively combat trafficking, psychologists and policymakers must collaborate to better understand the deleterious risks of trafficking and exploitation, and prevention and intervention strategies for vulnerable populations. The urgency of this issue must be illuminated in order to prevent further crimes, and at the same time give these women reparations for their experiences.

"There is no typical case of human trafficking, which often overlaps with other closely related crimes, such as human smuggling, prostitution, intimate partner violence, and child abuse"
—Report of the Task Force on Trafficking Women and Girls

There are several policy recommendations that will further address the practice of human trafficking within our society. The “Safe Harbor” legislation would provide policy provisions that conceptualize trafficked persons involved in illegal activities (e.g., prostitution) as victims rather than criminals, and support funding for legal protection and psychosocial safeguards for victims. This would enable women and other victims to raise their voices about their experiences and find justice for the perpetrators.

There is a critical need for increased rescues of trafficking victims and prosecutions of traffickers. People freed from slavery must be treated as victims of crime, not criminals. The demand for modern-day slaves must be stopped. This is not a victimless or harmless crime, and the public should be informed of the risks involved with it. Support for individuals in transition would fund research and prevention programs that include early identification of vulnerable populations (e.g., foster children, youth in transition), and effective interventions. Coordination must include effective collaboration between state and federal officials as well as across government agencies including the Department of Justice and state institutional systems. Data collection would provide specific outcomes reporting on the needs of girls in the juvenile and criminal justice systems and inform the implementation of best practices for at-risk and system-involved youth.

Research, education, advocacy, and prevention efforts should include media, school settings, advocacy groups, and community-based organizations that address the sexualization of girls, and the vulnerability of minority populations. Humanitarian implementation and intervention strategies should protect victims and offer appropriate resources, services, and support to ensure safety and optimal medical and mental health outcomes. They should be provided with the proper reparations which will strengthen their mental health and slowly release their trauma.



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