Human Trafficking 101: It Happens Everywhere


Human trafficking happens everywhere.

Yes. Even in the United States.

Many Americans feel positive that human trafficking only happens “somewhere else” – like in Thailand, India, or maybe Mexico. Somewhere “over there.”

It’s hard to fathom that human trafficking takes place on U.S. soil, too. As with any atrocious crime, it’s easy to operate under the false assumption that it couldn’t exist in our own backyards.

To gain a clear picture of the scope of the problem, you need to understand not only what it is, but also where it is happening. The more you know, the more you can educate your friends, family, and community.

It’s also important to understand common misconceptions about where and how human trafficking occurs in order to dispel false information. This crime doesn’t take place only in impoverished cities or countries. It also doesn’t require government corruption to be present or for a region to have a severe lack of resources.

Any community or region, whether affluent or impoverished, is not immune to the effects of human trafficking.

In part one of the Human Trafficking 101 series, the Alliance for Freedom, Restoration, and Justice (AFRJ)  took a deep dive into the crime, identified the issue and gave resources to learn more about human trafficking.

We learned that it’s a global crime with no geographical or economic bounds. But you may ask yourself: if human trafficking is such a big problem, where does it happen?

In the second post of this three-part series, we’ll explore where this crime exists.

Human trafficking is hard to track.

There are several reports that give a thorough review of what human trafficking looks like in many different countries all over the world, and these reports are a great place to start for context.

However, it is nearly impossible for any report to cover all aspects and geographic locations of trafficking situations. These reports do their best at presenting the most comprehensive data possible, but it’s incredibly difficult to get perfectly accurate information.

Why is human trafficking so difficult to track?

For starters, when conducting a census, human trafficking victims don’t raise their hands and identify as being trafficked. At the same time, traffickers don’t report on their yearly taxes that they were committing a crime. For this and many other reasons, exact statistics and figures are nearly impossible to compile.

We’ll dive deeper into the difficulty of tracking statistics later, but simply understand that placing countries and cities in order of “top five worst places” for the crime of human trafficking is not a realistic way to view this issue.

How many countries are impacted by human trafficking?

Every country around the world likely has some form of human trafficking occurring. No country has successfully managed to stamp out this crime within its borders.

Most countries are both source and destination countries – meaning that people are sold inside their borders as well as sent outside their country to be trafficked in another.

Additionally, most countries have instances of both their own citizens as well as those foreign to their country.

Are there any cultural or regional differences that impact human trafficking?

Human trafficking certainly has underlying characteristics that look the same everywhere, but its impact varies greatly depending on a country’s culture, government regulation, laws, and their enforcement, as well as other regional history and dynamics.

Some examples of  this variance include:

  • Conflict zones. Individuals living in these areas are suddenly left without their usual resources to protect themselves from vulnerable situations.
  • Organized crime: some areas have trafficking rings run by organized crime groups, gangs, or mafia.
  • There will be greater instances of child slavery in places where minors take jobs to support their families. This happens with or without parental consent or knowledge.
  • Trafficking has a greater chance of occurring in countries with corrupt legal systems: areas where there is often a lack of access to trustworthy or accountable authorities to enforce laws.
  • Regions that have strong judicial systems and reliable law enforcement are actively working to combat this issue, but this also makes these crimes more hidden.
Human trafficking doesn’t really happen in the United States, does it? 

Yes. In all 50 states, in rural areas as well as large cities and everywhere in between. To our own citizens as well as foreign nationals. Human trafficking really does happen everywhere.

So, why don’t we see it? 

What it boils down to is this: human trafficking is a crime. And the signs that you may be looking for aren’t always there, or are wrong all together:

  • Trafficking victims aren’t always bound in chains and shackles.
  • Trafficking victims aren’t always minors – they can be adults. Female or male.
  • Trafficking doesn’t always look like prostitution. It has many forms including domestic servitude, migrant workers and other forms of exploitation. Take a look at the Typology report from Polaris for a more in-depth explanation of what you should be looking for in the U.S.

Why isn’t it highlighted in my local newspaper on T.V. more often?

There isn’t a simple answer to that, since this crime is exceptionally complex. It’s not as easy to determine the facts of a human trafficking case or to distinguish who the victims are as it may be with other types of crimes.

The U.S. judicial system has improved vastly in this area in the last several years, but every community is progressing at a different pace.

Does this really happen in my community?

Human trafficking doesn’t exist only in big cities like New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Miami or Los Angeles. It happens in rural communities and small towns, too.

Trafficking situations in rural areas of the U.S. aren’t often covered in the media, so most people are unfamiliar with what these cases might look like. For instance:

  • Both sex and labor trafficking can be found outside of metropolitan areas.
  • Labor trafficking in rural America is likely to be agricultural with few instances of other forced labor situations.
  • Sex trafficking often happens within families where a family member is selling a child for money to pay rent or buy drugs.

Human trafficking in rural areas is also harder to spot because there are fewer services available to a victim, and often less training for these providers to identify a victim when they do access services. Often, there isn’t much training available for rural law enforcement or available resources to assign officers to these cases.

Why haven’t we exterminated this crime in the U.S. yet?

This is a discussion that requires a more thorough discussion. We will address this more fully later in our series when we discuss why human trafficking exists and how do we stop it from happening.

Human trafficking in the United States – as in many other regions of the world – is a result of compounded vulnerabilities, increased demand, and many other complex issues.

Be encouraged! There is so much work being done in our country to help this cause, and there are many ways that you can support the work being done in your own community. To start, you can learn more about the issue in your area. Shared Hope creates state report cards every year based on the laws in each state specifically regarding minor sex trafficking.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline also creates a list of statistics from each state based on the reports the hotline receives.

You can spread awareness in your community and come alongside others that are working around this issue. There are so many ways you can join the fight to end human trafficking.

How do we know human trafficking is really happening in all of these places? 

This is a dark and evil crime that stays hidden and is often very hard to track. It’s something that has been occurring for decades but has only recently become a widely known issue.

We have gotten better at spotting instances of human trafficking recently for many different reasons, but one of the most important is because of awareness and training: for the general public, law enforcement agents encountering these situations, lawyers and judges who see these crimes in court, and more.

Awareness is incredibly important in helping us unearth human trafficking and understanding exactly where it’s occurring.

While no one person can know everything there is to know about this crime as it’s constantly changing, we can each do our best to learn and share with others.

Are there specific facts and numbers to back up these claims?

It’s an obvious question to ask – “how many people are trafficked each year?” – we want to be able to wrap our minds around the prevalence and reach of this horrific crime.

Estimates range anywhere from 21 million to 47 million people impacted by human trafficking crimes. This is obviously an enormous discrepancy that leads many people to assume we don’t really have any idea.

But calculating an accurate and comprehensive number isn’t a straightforward process. While there are various numbers that give us context for the breadth of the problem, none are 100 percent accurate.

Victims of this crime can’t readily step forward and identify themselves for a multitude of reasons:

  • Many falsely assume they’ve done something wrong – either because of the horrific things they’ve been forced to do or because their traffickers have told them they’d be in legal trouble if they spoke up.
  • Others have been threatened with violence against themselves or family members if they seek help.
  • In some cases, when a victim is taken to a new country, they’re afraid that cultural and language barriers will keep them from effectively getting help.
  • Sometimes there’s an overlap between human trafficking indicators and signs of other types of crimes. What looks like one crime on the surface isn’t properly identified as human trafficking.
  • With prostitution and sex trafficking, it’s often hard to prove the elements of force, fraud or coercion.
  • Many times, it’s difficult to distinguish between a migrant worker experiencing unsatisfactory working conditions and labor trafficking.
  • Many trafficking cases take place in isolation, so victims don’t have a lot of contact with the outside world and therefore go unnoticed. This is especially true in cases of domestic servitude where trafficking victims are kept in a household, often with no privileges to leave, or in the agricultural or fishing industries.

Knowing WHAT human trafficking is, and understanding WHERE it’s happening are the first steps in eradicating this evil crime from our communities.

The more you know, the more you can help.

If we don’t know what to look for or where to look, we won’t see this crime to report it and make progress toward ending it.

To learn more about what human trafficking looks like in your community, keep an eye on local news. You can set up a Google Alert to email you news stories on a specific topic like “human trafficking in Syracuse, New York.”

You can also research your region for organizations and coalitions to learn from as well as volunteer with.

Stay tuned for the next post in the Human Trafficking 101 series: Who are the victims of human trafficking?

What do you want to learn about next?

Let us know in the comments what questions you have about human trafficking.

If you suspect a trafficking situation call the National Human Trafficking Hotline now: 1-888-373-7888

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