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Understanding and Recognizing Human Trafficking

January is also Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Human trafficking is a serious issue that can take many forms, but the two broadest are sex and labor trafficking.

Human trafficking happens in every country to varying degrees. According to the United Nations, certain regions tend to be destinations for traffickers while others tend to be origins. Many in the United States assume that human trafficking is largely confined to the developing world. However, they’d be wrong to think that.

There are many such misconceptions and myths that hamper our understanding of both the prevalence and proximity of human trafficking, and the act itself. But before continuing, we need to understand what trafficking really is.

Read the full 2014 UN Trafficking Report here.

What Is Human Trafficking?

Many refer to trafficking as “modern-day slavery.” While there is a lot of truth to this, it’s also a little misleading, as it implies that trafficking and slavery are the same. It also implies that slavery doesn’t really happen other than in trafficking situations.

The reality is that trafficking and slavery often go hand-in-hand, but not always. “Trafficking” refers to the acts associated with moving victims. More specifically, it is the movement of persons for exploitative purposes. Exploitation can mean a lot of things — prostitution, forced labor or enslavement, organ removal, and more.

"Actions-Means-Purposes" model for defining trafficking. Act + means + purpose = trafficking. For example, Transport (Act) + Abduction (Means) + Prostitution (Purpose) = Trafficking.
The “Actions-Means-Purposes” model for defining trafficking (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)

The Human Rights Commission has identified sex trafficking, forced labor, and debt bondage as the most common forms of human trafficking.

Sex trafficking is illegally transporting people both within countries and across borders for sexual exploitation. For most people, this is the first form of trafficking that comes to mind.

Forced labor can be found in virtually every industry, such as agricultural work, domestic servitude, hotel services, construction, and more. Trafficked workers often work for little to no pay under strenuous conditions.

Debt bondage happens when an individual or group uses debt to subjugate workers. They often make sure that workers can’t pay it off or accrue new debts, thus trapping them in a cycle of poverty and subjugation.

Myths and Misconceptions Around Human Trafficking

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions that affect our understanding of trafficking. It’s important that we clear up these misconceptions so we can better understand the reality of the situation.

Here are a few common ones…

Myth #1: Trafficking victims will try to seek help when in public.

Reality: Trafficking creates psychological bondage in addition to literal bondage. Victims often don’t seek help for fear of retribution against them or their families, deportation, or they may not have control of their documentation.

Myth #2: Human trafficking doesn’t occur in the United States.

Reality: Human trafficking happens everywhere. It’s estimated to be the second-most profitable criminal industry in the world. As said earlier, some places tend to be destinations or origins of trafficking. The US is both.

Myth #3: Trafficking victims are only from lower socioeconomic classes, or are only foreign-born.

Reality: Anyone can be a victim. This isn’t meant to scare you, but it’s important to understand that anyone can fall victim.

Myth #4: Human trafficking is only sex trafficking.

Reality: Sex trafficking is just one part. Labor trafficking is the other broad category, and is harder to identify. It is also severely underreported compared to sex trafficking, so we don’t necessarily know if it is more or less common.

Understanding Labor Trafficking

For most people, human trafficking is synonymous with sex trafficking. Trafficking is often presented in news and media as enslavement of women for sexual exploitation. While that makes up a large proportion of trafficking cases, it does a disservice to victims of other forms of trafficking.

Sex trafficking appears to be much more prevalent due to the disparity between cases. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 34,700 sex trafficking reports in the US from 2007 to 2017, versus 7,800 reports of labor trafficking. However, labor trafficking is usually much harder to recognize and is often severely underreported, so these statistics can be a little misleading.

Sex trafficking tends to receive much more attention from both media and law enforcement. While it absolutely should capture that attention, the flip side is that labor trafficking becomes an enforcement afterthought. According to Polaris Executive Director Bradley Myles (Polaris is the nonprofit behind the National Trafficking Hotline), many victims of labor trafficking are immigrants both with and without legal status.

Traffickers trap victims by taking their passports, threatening them or their families, threatening to call immigration enforcement, or force them to take on debt. Between the psychological imprisonment of victims and the lack of attention given by law enforcement, it’s no wonder that we don’t really have accurate labor trafficking statistics.

Furthermore, the priorities of the US government are such that many labor trafficking victims are afraid to speak out for fear of consequence from the government. A large proportion of labor trafficking victims are immigrants, working in exploitation-prone industries. The US government’s high rate of deportation undermines its ability to find and help labor trafficking victims, as many victims are unsure of their ability to stay in the US if they self-report.

Minnesota’s Safe Harbor Law

Now, understanding that labor trafficking statistics are less likely to reflect the reality of the situation, let’s take a look at trafficking in Minnesota.

In 2014, the Safe Harbor Law went into effect in Minnesota. The Safe Harbor Law essentially fixes a catch-22 in US law. The catch-22 is this: Sex trafficking is obviously illegal. So is prostitution. Men and women who are victims of sex traffickers can’t go to law enforcement for help because they run the risk of being arrested and criminalized for prostitution.

The Safe Harbor Law prevents youth who have been sex trafficked from being criminalized. In 2016, the policy was expanded to provide services for victims up to age 24. This is why statistics seem to jump after 2014 — Minnesota law has made it easier for victims to self-report.

Trafficking in Minnesota

Because of the 2014 implementation and 2016 expansion of the Safe Harbor Law, and growing awareness of labor trafficking, we are starting to see the reality of the situation in Minnesota. The number of trafficking victims has dramatically increased since 2013, though this does not necessarily mean sex trafficking is becoming more prevalent.

It’s more likely that increased awareness and improved legislation has made it easier to identify sex trafficking, therefore increasing the number of cases year over year.

It is the same situation with labor trafficking in Minnesota. The number of cases has increased quite a bit since 2013, but law enforcement agencies have also been paying more attention since then.

Trafficking Statistics in Minnesota

  • 2,124 victims of sex trafficking were helped by service providers in 2017. There were 401 investigations conducted by law enforcement that year.
  • A recent study determined at least 5,000 Minnesota high schoolers face sexual exploitation, which can lead to sex trafficking. The male and female victims were split almost 50-50. Click here to see the 2019 University of Minnesota study.
  • 394 victims of labor trafficking were helped by service providers in 2017. There were 21 investigations conducted by law enforcement that year.

Trafficking by Geographic Location

  • 60% of sex trafficking victims and 69% of labor trafficking victims in 2017 were identified in the Twin Cities.
  • 17% of sex trafficking victims and 13% of labor trafficking victims were identified in central Minnesota (note that some of the state’s largest cities, such as St. Cloud, Elk River, and Brainerd are in this region).
  • The remaining trafficking victims were split fairly evenly across the state.

Trafficking Statistics by Demographic

  • The majority of labor trafficking victims identified by law enforcement in 2017 were women 18 and older (61%). Men 18 and older made up 22%.
  • Labor trafficking victims assisted by service providers were 46% men 18 and older, and 40% women 18 and older.
  • The vast majority of sex trafficking victims both identified by law enforcement and assisted by service providers in 2017 were women. About a quarter of them were under 18.

Recognizing Human Trafficking

Part of the reason we are still accurizing trafficking statistics is simply that it is a tricky crime to identify. Law enforcement is getting better at it thanks to improved training and awareness, but there’s still work to do.

As simple civilians, we can also do our part. To recognize trafficking situations, law enforcement uses “indicators.” These are red flags to look for that tend to indicate trafficking. Obviously, recognizing these indicators is not a guarantee that you’re recognizing a trafficking situation. But it is important to know them, especially if you see more than one.

Here are some of the most common ones, as posted by the Department of State:

  • Living with employer
  • Poor living conditions
  • Answers appear scripted and rehearsed
  • Signs of physical abuse
  • Submissive or fearful
  • Inability to speak with individual alone

Read the full list of common indicators of trafficking from the Department of State here.

What If I Think I Recognize a Trafficking Situation?

If you think you recognize a trafficking situation, under no circumstances should you try to assist the victim yourself. You don’t know how the trafficker will react should they see what you’re doing, and you also don’t know how the victim will react. It is far better to contact law enforcement or an organization that works with trafficking victims.

If you think you recognize a trafficking situation, call 9-1-1, and notify the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888) to ensure that the response is handled by officials who are knowledgeable about trafficking.

If you identify a victim who has escaped a trafficking situation, also call the Trafficking Hotline to find local organizations and shelters who can help them.

The Big Picture

Thanks to increased public awareness and education, as well as more specialized training for law enforcement, we are starting to get a more accurate picture of trafficking in Minnesota. The statistics appear to be rising, but they’re probably just becoming more accurate.

Trafficking is much more common in urban areas. The majority of labor trafficking victims are working in restaurants and massage parlors, and tend to be Asian American or Latinx.

Sex trafficking victims are overwhelmingly women. A large proportion is below 18, and most are either white, African American, or Native American. LGBTQ+ victims are reported less but the numbers are estimated to be much higher.

Combating human trafficking starts with awareness. Increased public awareness is the reason for more investigations and more accurate statistics. A third of sex and labor trafficking investigations were opened after tips from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, relevant organizations such as shelters or child protection, or anonymous callers.

The point is that public awareness and vigilance has played a huge part in fighting human trafficking in Minnesota. Self-identification of trafficking victims is quite rare. It takes all of us to make a difference.

If you think you recognize a trafficking situation, call 9-1-1 and the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

For further reading, check out the full 2018 Human Trafficking in Minnesota report here.

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