Human Trafficking 101: Who are the Victims?

Crowded Train

We are working through our Human Trafficking 101 blog series, and this is part three. If you missed the first two posts in this series, make sure to go back and read part one, Uncovering Myths and Intricacies and part two, Human Trafficking Happens Everywhere.

And now, for the rest of the story:

Where does it all begin for a human trafficking victim?

The journey of a human trafficking victim doesn’t begin the moment he or she is rescued. It doesn’t begin the moment the victim was first exploited. In almost every case, there’s far more to the story than meets the eye.

Human trafficking is the end result of years – sometimes generations – of vulnerabilities that have been unaddressed, under-resourced, or unnoticed.

A person who’s been trafficked likely lived a life with compounding vulnerabilities like: trauma, abuse, neglect, disability, violence, family breakdown, homelessness, poverty, or a combination of many factors

Though cultural norms and values differ worldwide, the need to be loved and the desire to provide for one’s family are common to us all. Traffickers exploit vulnerabilities that many people already face by using stories of a better life – whether that means a feeling of belonging, a better income, or a chance for new opportunities. While these claims may appear to be legitimate at first, unfortunately for many men, women, and children, they’re targeted as easy prey for exploitation.

Human trafficking affects everyone – women, men, children, youth, those foreign to a nation and a country’s own citizens.

Misunderstandings about human trafficking victims:

Often, we have a very specific image of a person who’s been trafficked in our minds because of a documentary, film, or news story we’ve seen.

This image is usually one of several varieties: a poor, shoeless person sitting in the dirt in a rural village; a teenage girl with chains around her hands and feet; or maybe even images we’ve seen in history books about the Transatlantic slave trade.

But these images don’t provide a clear understanding of who is actually falling prey to human traffickers. Victims are often in plain view and go unidentified because they don’t match the stereotypical image the media portrays and the public consumes.

While unpacking these myths completely is difficult to do concisely, we’ll walk through them to help you gain an understanding of the truth sometimes captured within these myths.

Some myths about human trafficking victims and their truths:

MYTH: Human trafficking applies mostly to prostitution or sexual exploitation.
TRUTH: Human trafficking appears in many forms. For a deep dive on this topic, take a look at Uncovering Myths & Intricacies.

MYTH: All trafficked people are in other countries – mostly in Asia and Africa.
Truth: Human trafficking knows no geographical bounds. It happens all over the world, including the United States. For a broader knowledge of where human trafficking happens, read It Happens Everywhere.

MYTH: Victims of human trafficking are only found in large urban areas that are hot spots of crime or foreign villages in developing countries.
TRUTH: Human trafficking victims are found in affluent cities as well as small townsHuman trafficking occurs all over the world, not just in specific regions based on socioeconomic development.

MYTH: Most human trafficking involves females under the age of 18.
TRUTH: Human trafficking victims are found across all age, gender, and racial demographics.

MYTH: Recruiting human trafficking victims happens quickly – like strangers trying to lure children away.
TRUTH: Recruitment is a process that usually takes place over a long period of time and in a much less obvious manner. It often includes subtle brainwashing and grooming tactics.

MYTH: Human trafficking frequently happens in broad daylight in places like a park or the grocery store.
TRUTH: It can happen anywhere, any time of day or night.

MYTH: Those who are trafficked in the U.S. are not American citizens.
TRUTH: Human trafficking victims in the U.S. are foreign as well as domestic.

MYTH: There must be evidence of physical restraint in all human trafficking situations.
TRUTH: As outlined in our previous blog post defining human trafficking, the legal definition of human trafficking states: “by means of the threat or use of force, fraud, or coercion.” This means that a person could feel unable to leave a situation because of fraud, coercion, or manipulation, as well as physical restraint. Also, in the United States, the TVPA has special protections for minors.

Are some communities more vulnerable to human trafficking?

No community, whether affluent or impoverished, isn’t immune to the crime of human trafficking (as discussed more thoroughly in our previous post: It Happens Everywhere).

While there isn’t one face of a human trafficking victim, certain populations are more vulnerable, including runaway and homeless youth, children and youth in foster care, individuals fleeing violence or natural disasters, individuals with a disability, and those who have suffered other types of abuse or exploitation in their lifetimes.

Minors in the child welfare system are significantly more likely to be trafficked than their peers who have had no contact with the child welfare system. 

  • A 2007 study of 2,250 child victims of trafficking revealed that 75 percent of children had previous contact with the child welfare system, mostly in the context of abuse and neglect proceedings.
  • In 2013, 60 percent of children rescued in a nationwide raid led by the FBI in more than 70 cities were from foster care or group homes (NPR, 2013).
  • In 2012, Connecticut reported 88 child victims of sex trafficking. Eighty-six were child welfare involved, and most reported abuse while in foster care or residential placement.
  • In Alameda County, California, a one-year review of local CSEC victim populations found that 55 percent were from foster youth group homes, and 82% had previously run away from home multiple times.

Homeless and runaway youth are another common target for traffickers.

Runaway youth are often approached by traffickers at transportation hubs, shelters or other public spaces. These traffickers play the role of a boyfriend or a significant other, using feigned affection and manipulation to elicit commercial sex or services from the victim. Runaway or homeless youth may be compelled to exchange sex for basic survival necessities, such as food, shelter, or protection.

  • At least one in three homeless youth engage in “survival sex,” the exchange of a sexual service for food, clothing, shelter or protection.
  • According to Covenant House, “Shelter was the number one commodity traded in return for sexual activity. Of those who engaged in commercial sex activity, almost half (of youth) – 48 percent in total – said they did it because they did not have a place to stay. Participants (in the Covenant House Research) explained how traffickers loiter in areas where homeless youth are known to gather and then tell them that the shelters are full and offer them a place to stay in lieu of sleeping on the streets.”
  • 162,000 homeless youth are estimated to be victims of commercial sexual exploitation in the United States.
  • Fifty-six percent of women in prostitution were once runaway youth. (Congressional Research Service)
  • Youth living on their own are at a higher risk for anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide attempts and other health problems due to the enhanced exposure to violence. Each of these factors increases the youth’s vulnerability to traffickers.

Foreign Nationals are at an increased risk because of the legal and travel restrictions they face.

Victims of labor trafficking have been found among U.S. migrant and seasonal farmworkers, restaurant workers, and as domestic servants. These populations include men, women, families, or children as young as five years old who harvest crops and raise animals in fields or work in packing plants, nurseries, orchards, and kitchens.

Foreign nationals are at an increased risk for human trafficking for many reasons. They are more likely to face legal restrictions on work and travel related to their visas. They are also more likely to have a language barrier, and they’re more likely to be unfamiliar with the area where they live including the geographic layout, resources available, and legal protections regarding labor.

“These victims often face threats workers with arrest and deportation, even workers who have the legal right to work in the United States. Farmworkers holding H-2A temporary work visas are prohibited from working for an employer other than the one who requested their visa, leaving the worker vulnerable to abuse by an employer, crew leader, or recruitment agency.” (Human Trafficking Resource Center)

Seasonal work in the hospitality industry may also be at risk for exploitation. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable because they are less likely to report being the victim of a crime.

Foreign nationals may also be victims of sex trafficking. Massage parlors, strip clubs, nail salons, and other businesses may pose as legitimate businesses, but actually, be run by human traffickers. “Victims in these establishments are primarily controlled through debt, blackmail, and intense psychological manipulation. Almost every aspect of their life is controlled — where they live, what they eat, where they go, what they look like, and who they are allowed to talk to.”

Individuals with a history of trauma or abuse are less resilient and more susceptible to human trafficking.

Intimate partner violence, domestic violence, incest, psychological or emotional abuse and neglect, and other forms of trauma and violence can make a person more vulnerable to human trafficking. Often, individuals are not able or not yet willing to seek treatment for their previous abuse. People, especially children, and youth are less resilient after experiencing trauma and more likely to be persuaded or tricked by others who would take advantage of emotional instability, low self-esteem, physical injury, a missing support system, and an intensified need to be accepted by peers or stand-ins for family members.

“Although human trafficking affects every demographic, a common factor across all forms of modern slavery is the victims’ vulnerability to exploitation. Generally, when inequality exists and where certain people lack access to social protection and justice, human traffickers are able to thrive. ” TIP Report, 2016

Physical and social factors make individuals with disabilities more vulnerable to human trafficking.

Specific risk factors for people with physical or cognitive disabilities include social marginalization, difficulty with communication, and diminished ability to protect oneself due to lack of instruction or resources. In some cultures, disabilities are seen as shameful and burdensome to families. Other times, family members may not have the financial resources to provide ongoing care to their loved ones with disabilities. These families fall target to traffickers who promise families that they will provide work or education to their loved ones with a disability. However, victims are forced into organized begging rings because it is thought that they gain more sympathy (and therefore profit) by the traffickers. Additionally, individuals who are hard of hearing or sight are often targeted by traffickers because of their diminished ability to report their situation to police or someone who may be able to help them.

How do we identify those who are caught in this evil trade?

It certainly isn’t easy, especially because no two situations are going to look exactly alike.

Oftentimes a human trafficking case will be noticed by someone who is most likely to come in contact with a victim – a police officer, medical professional, parent, teacher, employees at a hair or nail salon, etc. This is why training for these individuals is so important.

Red flags to look for when trying to determine if the suspicious activity you have noticed is a case of human trafficking, specifically regarding an individual include someone who is:

  • unable to come and go as they wish
  • under 18 years old and performing commercial sex acts
  • unpaid or paid very little for employment
  • in large debt to employer and is unable to pay it off
  • not allowed to speak for themselves
  • not in control of their money or bank account.
  • not in control of their personal identification (passport, driver’s license, ID)

Other indicators include appearing fearful, anxious, submissive, tense, paranoid, etc. or avoiding all eye contact.

For more detailed descriptions of these warning signs and more take a look at the full list from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, as well as these other resources:

US Department of Health and Human Services Fact Sheet

US Department of Homeland Security Blue Campaign

US Office of Justice Programs

If you see something, say something:

Always report it, when you see something suspicious to the local authorities in addition to calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline – 1.888.373.7888.

It’s important that you’re educated on what to look for so that you can speak up and be a voice for victims of this crime who often can’t speak up for themselves.

Be aware that not all circumstances that first appear to be human trafficking necessarily are. At the same time, be vigilant and take note of all suspicious activity around you, and always report this to your local law enforcement. Understand that exploitation and abuse occur in lots of situations in addition to crimes of human trafficking.

Keep your eyes open for the “invisible chains.”

Many people often wonder why someone caught in these horrible conditions doesn’t do something to escape or report their abuse. The realities of the exploitation suffered and the complications around each situation are often misunderstood.

There are many reasons why someone who is being trafficked might not be able to leave. Victims are often taught to distrust others – particularly law enforcement, this is especially true if they are in a country illegally and could be deported if discovered. Victims are very rarely left alone and are threatened with violence. Severe retaliation or attacks on their families hold many in fear of disobeying their traffickers.

“In all forms of human trafficking, there are likely elements of grooming a victim prior to the individual becoming a victim and brainwashing and coercion to keep them from leaving. Outside of the actual act of forcing someone to stay in such situations, these factors greatly affect a person’s propensity to report a crime or try to leave.”  TIP Report, 2016

Another common method of keeping a trafficking victim from leaving is debt bondage – this is when a trafficker claims a debt owed for shelter, food, or protection and inflates it to a point that it is insurmountable to the victim.

Additionally, victims often have psychological trauma from their abuse, which can often cause them to bond to their abuser in irrational ways.

There are many more reasons why someone might not be able to break the invisible chains holding them in their current state. The Polaris Project has a detailed list with further explanations.

Outside the influence of a trafficker’s threats and lies, there’s also a lack of awareness of what human trafficking is. Most victims of human trafficking will not self-identify as such because they’re unaware of what it means. Additionally, their trafficker likely has justified their actions in a number of ways to convince a victim that their experience is normal and not a crime.

This is one reason why it is so important to be educated on the issue and share what you’ve learned with others. Education is a central piece to the identification of victims and in turn the ability of law enforcement to be able to rescue them.

The importance of understanding.

The journey a victim takes after the point of rescue is incredibly important to their future health and well-being. Prior misunderstandings of the situations human trafficking victims experience has necessitated a movement to create a more victim-centered approach. This is an effort by law enforcement to minimize re-traumatization as they move through the criminal justice system.

Familiarizing yourself with human trafficking traits and commonalities is important in helping the general public know what to look for. This helps dispel common myths mentioned previously and leads to increased identification of human trafficking situations.

Survivor Stories

A great way to gain an understanding of what human trafficking really looks like and to overturn its common myths and misunderstandings is to read personal stories and testimonies of victim’s experiences. Hearing their voices explain what they suffered through gives context to what this crime can be. There are many examples in articles and books that you will find as you continue researching and learning about this topic. Here are a few:

Survivor Perspectives on the Role of Health and Human Service Systems

Joining forces to fight human trafficking


What do you want to learn?

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

More resources for further learning:

The Irina Project

National Human Trafficking Hotline

Faces of Human Trafficking Discussion Guide