Over the past decade, the anti-human trafficking movement has gained momentum. A driving force behind its rising popularity are viral YouTube videos of human trafficking extraction operations. These videos are exciting, especially when they are “covert.” Now, don’t get me wrong. The people doing these extractions (extraction describes removing a person from a human trafficking situation) are doing brave deeds, and what they are doing absolutely needs to be done to win this war against human trafficking. However, extraction is only one battle in a larger, longer-term war.
The average human trafficking survivor returns to the streets 7 to 15 times after her or his first extraction–but only if they live long enough to be extracted that many times. On average, once a victim is in the grasps of a trafficker, the victim only lives 7 years . While in the hands of traffickers, victims undergo horrible sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. One example is survivor Karla Jacinto, who in 2017 revealed to the media that she was raped more than 43,200 times before age 16.
Human trafficking victims are subjected to such trauma and abuse, yet they still return to being trafficked. To someone outside the situation, this statistic hardly makes sense. However, there are a number of factors human trafficking victims have in common. Looking at these factors, the 7 to 15 times statistic does start to make sense. These common factors also show why extractions simply are not enough to end human trafficking.
Common Factor 1: Abuse and Trauma
As Jacinto’s story above shows, human trafficking victims experience extensive abuse and trauma. Further, one study found that 84% of human trafficking survivors have been sexually abused before being trafficked. When a person is sexually abused, they often feel ashamed and these feelings make speaking up about the abuse extremely difficult. A person being groomed by a trafficker might also feel ashamed or that something is not right, but they are not sure what to do about it.
Even if the person being groomed wants to tell someone, the trafficker will isolate them.
A human trafficking survivor needs competent, trauma-informed mental health care. While no amount of counseling can change past events, good counseling will aid a survivor in overcoming past traumas. Good therapy will empower survivors to speak up when their intuition tells them something is wrong.
A major challenge is that even in developed nations, the mental health care industry is poorly regulated. Aftercare organizations need to vet mental health care professionals and facilities. After vetting, organizations need to form partnerships with trusted resources that can provide trauma-informed and empowering care. Further, organizations need to regularly check in with survivors to ensure that their needs are being met. If this is not the case, organization members need to advocate for survivors by working more closely with their mental health team or by changing the team altogether.
Common Factor 2: Drug Addiction
In 2017, 84% of human trafficking survivors reported using alcohol and/or drugs during their victimization. Drug addiction is an avenue traffickers heavily exploit to keep victims dependent. In fact, clinicians have seen a clear link between the US opioid crisis and human trafficking.
Sometimes, the trafficker lures in a person already addicted to drugs. Other times, the trafficker gets a victim hooked on drugs. In both cases, once the victim is addicted to drugs, the trafficker becomes the victim’s source of these drugs–leaving the victim dependent on the trafficker. Under the influence of these drugs, the victim also loses a lot of ability to reason and the strength to independently escape.
Once a victim has successfully escaped or been extracted, the promise of drugs from a trafficker could easily lure them back in. Perhaps the victim is left with a secret drug addiction they are ashamed of, or they do not have the proper care to quash their addiction. Either way, the promise of drugs lures them back onto the streets.
Drug addiction is one reason reintegration is absolutely key in keeping victims from returning to traffickers. Connecting victims with reputable rehabilitation and counseling centers is crucial in overcoming this challenge. Once they complete this program, it is extremely important that they have a safe landing place. Human traffickers recruit straight from some substance use treatment centers. Plus, addiction is a battle of its own. A person overcoming a drug addiction requires similar aftercare support as a human trafficking survivor, such as avenues to gain social connections and employable skills. The Global Education Foundation provides scholarships for rehabilitation, education, and vocational training to help survivors reintegrate.
Common Factor 3: Internet Grooming
80% of missing children were first groomed online. In March 2020, the FBI said traffickers “often exploit dating apps and websites to recruit – and later advertise – sex trafficking victims.” Nobody wakes up one day wanting to “work” for a trafficker. Instead, traffickers often groom their victims. This grooming process is taking place increasingly online, where criminals can cast a wider net.
Children are especially at risk for online grooming, which can take place on social media sites, video games, or any app with a messaging function. Traffickers often pose as peers and/or expose children to pornography to cause feelings of shame. Feeling ashamed and afraid of being punished, children do not tell trusted adults about their online friendships or relationships.
Organizations need to aggressively spread awareness of the internet as a human trafficking hotbed. Parents in particular need to be aware of warning signs that their child is being groomed online. Tools such as web filters are also crucial in prevention and complement awareness education. Web filters, however, are not a replacement for parental supervision and intervention.
Related: 7 Tips to Keep Children Safe Online
To end human trafficking, we need to tackle the most common issues first, such as abuse and trauma, drug addiction, and internet grooming. One of the newest and most innovative approaches to these challenges is PEARL: Prevention, Extraction, Advocacy, Reintegration, and Leadership. This article has touched on all of these points except the last: Leadership.
Whether we are parents keeping our children safe online, a bystander who notices a potential human trafficking victim, or a healthcare professional, we all can play a part to stop human trafficking. Operation PEARL is a great place to start. With a free toolkit offering educational content and resources, the platform is perfect for anyone who wants to help end human trafficking.