Human Trafficking isn’t just a Global Issue. It’s a Local Issue too.     

By Maria Jose Fletcher, Esq. 

There are cruel people who take advantage of our most vulnerable for profit, pleasure, or both. We often think it is happening in areas that are foreign to us. But often, it happens right in our own communities.   

Trafficking in human beings is rooted in cultural, social, political, and economic factors, taking many forms. Vulnerable people are recruited from groups or communities at higher risk of being exploited – immigrants, LGBTQI+, Black and brown men and women, people with disabilities - and/or compelled to work against their will. Victims are coerced to engage in sex acts in exchange for something of value. The 'value' could include monetary payment, food, a place to sleep, or the promise of love and care.     

We have all read an article or watched a movie depicting young women from Eastern Europe taken by force to work in the sex industry in the Netherlands, or a portrayal of men and women from South Asia recruited by fraudulent agencies to work in 'construction' or 'home care' in places like Saudi Arabia. Perhaps immediately after you looked around your neighborhood, your city, or even your state, and you said to yourself – “what a relief that I live in a place where these appalling abuses could never happen given that slavery was eradicated in the late 1800s, education is accessible by most, labor laws and oversight ensure that workers are protected from exploitation, and if one is in danger they can resort to the protections afforded by the criminal and legal systems.”   

Ideally, those conditions, when correctly implemented, ought to be deterrents for trafficking to take root. However, in my 20 years of working with and providing legal assistance to victims of trafficking, my interactions with the men, women, and children abused by unscrupulous employers and traffickers in the United States reveal a different story.  

Ongoing demand for cheap, unprotected labor and pervasive gender inequalities create the perfect ground for trafficking to flourish. There have been investigations and prosecutions of human traffickers in every state and territory of the United States. Although a great percentage of people who were trafficked come from other countries, many are US citizens. While only some traffickers utilize physical violence to restrain the workers, all are experts at control through emotional, mental, and economic abuse which are effective tactics to erode a person's will. Additionally, sexual harassment, sexual violence, and rape are common tactics utilized to weaken mostly female but also male workers in cases of labor trafficking, including domestic servitude, cleaning crews, agricultural, factory, and restaurant work.   

In 2000, the United States Congress enacted of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (VTPA). In the United States, every year since 2010 the President issues a proclamation establishing January as National Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Government agencies and service providers dedicated to confronting and responding to the harm caused by trafficking join efforts to motivate the public to recognize that we all have a role in preventing human trafficking.   

The VTPA was created as a tool to address, in part, the harm caused from crime by providing opportunities to the survivors to access protection and seek justice through the criminal and civil legal systems. In 2000, service providers assisting survivors of trafficking hoped that the implementation of the Act would also provide effective tools for preventing crime, however the last 23 years has taught us that this approach has fallen short in significantly curtailing the crisis.  

Trafficking continues to be of grave concern at the national and international levels.  

The world and our nation are experiencing an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment; a prevalence of gender-based violence - including human trafficking - in the lives of Black and Brown women and girls; an erosion of labor and employment protections; natural and human-created disasters; and a voracious appetite for cheap products and services. These conditions converge to leave individuals and communities extremely vulnerable to traffickers.  

We are faced with an impending mandate to take additional steps to prevent human trafficking.  

Survivor leaders recommend precise prevention actions to directly address some of the most insidious underlying causes of human trafficking. Among them are: 

  • Community initiatives to prevent gender-based violence in K-12 schools  
  • Projects that address the race and class aspects of mass incarceration of Black women and girls 
  • Worker-driven social-responsibility efforts to eliminate gender-based violence and human trafficking from the supply chain 
  • Partnerships between survivors and anti-trafficking allies to enhance anti-trafficking programs and policies. 

While we may not be able to see the end of human trafficking in our lifetime it is evident that personally, professionally, as consumers, as employers, and in our places of employment, we all have the power and the opportunity to change the circumstances that place people at risk and provide hope, opportunity and freedom to all victims of trafficking. 

Start with learning more here:

Maria Jose Fletcher, BWJP’s Director for the National Center on Systems Change and Policy.  

Maria Jose, a migrant from Uruguay and then Peru, understands the struggles associated with leaving one’s home in search of safety. Witnessing firsthand the violence perpetrated against women and girls compelled her to dedicate her life to advance the rights of immigrant survivors of gender-based violence. As a nonprofit attorney for over 25 years and as committed community member, Maria Jose is actively involved in local, state, national and international victim’s rights organizations.  

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