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Untangling Myths About Human Trafficking

World Day Against Trafficking brings attention to misconceptions that remain.

Eliminating human trafficking is a formidable challenge; in taking steps toward this, it’s crucial to examine the many facets of this complicated issue. First, in terms of the magnitude, human trafficking is tied with the illegal arms industry as the second-largest criminal industry in the world after drug trafficking. The International Labor Organization estimates that 21 million people are victims of forced labor globally—a figure that also includes victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. Due to the nature of this underground industry, it’s unclear how many of these forced labor victims were trafficked, but the data suggest that there are millions of trafficking victims in the world.

These numbers help us begin to conceive of the scope of the problem. But what can be done about it? With July 30th marking World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, more non-profits, government agencies, researchers, and advocates should devote more energy to address this question. To do this, however, it’s imperative that we shatter some commonly-held myths about human trafficking to help better identify it.

Here are six common myths about trafficking:

Myth #1: U.S. citizens never become victims of human trafficking

Fact: People are incorrect if they think that modern-day slavery only happens to poor people in other countries who are vulnerable to traffickers who exploit their desire to come to the U.S., or their lack of English fluency to seek help. Many victims of trafficking in the U.S. are, in fact, American citizens. A group that is particularly vulnerable is young teens, especially runaways, homeless, or other at-risk youth; in fact, between 244,000 and 325,000 American youth are at high risk of being sexually exploited. And the Polaris Project estimates that more than 200,000 children in the U.S. become victims of sex trafficking each year1.

Myth #2: The way trafficking usually happens is that victims are kidnapped, drugged, chained up, or otherwise trapped.

Fact: Victims’ stories are very diverse. But the truth is that the Hollywood version of trafficking is rare. Many foreign-born victims come willingly after being promised a job and then find that they have been tricked and are now stuck working off the travel debts their traffickers incurred in bringing them here. But it’s often even more surreptitious than that, especially for U.S.-born victims. A recent Polaris Project report found that 32 percent of sex trafficking victims were recruited through a friend. Hotspots for recruitment are homeless shelters, rehab facilities, jails, malls, and foster homes. In fact, abductions accounted for only a tiny percentage of victims’ stories. Most victims are not kidnapped, drugged, chained or locked up in a home or workplace. Sometimes they don’t even experience physical abuse because the traffickers don’t want to leave physical evidence that may reveal the abuse. Instead, they use psychological abuse, threats, and manipulation. Some victims even have cell phones and can get permission to leave to go outside to places like a health clinic, a grocery store, or even church.

Flickr/Ira Gelb
Source: Flickr/Ira Gelb

Myth #3: Victims are always female who are exploited for sex.

Fact: Like many persistent myths, this one resembles fact but isn’t quite correct. It is true that most trafficking victims are female, and most commonly trafficked for sex. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. According to the USC Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, there has been a drop in the percentage of women who make up the world’s trafficking victims from 49-74 percent drop between 2004 and 2011. Men accounted for approximately 18 percent of victims in 2011, up 5 percentage points from 2004.

Myth #4: All traffickers are male.

Fact: A wide range of criminals can be human traffickers. Perhaps surprising to many, some traffickers are female. In fact, in my own research, most of the traffickers of the foreign-born victims that I interviewed were females from the victims’ own countries. According to the Polaris Project, often the traffickers and their victims share the same national, ethnic, or cultural background, allowing the trafficker to better understand and exploit the vulnerabilities of their victims. They can be foreign nationals and U.S. citizens, family members, intimate partners, acquaintances, and strangers.

Myth #5: If a woman willingly came to the U.S. for a job and was tricked into slavery, it isn’t a crime—she was simply gullible.

Fact: In every case of human trafficking, a crime has indeed been committed. Force, fraud, and coercion for the purpose of exploitation of another human being are crimes. Fraud can include false promises of work or living conditions, withholding wages, or contract fraud. Coercion might involve threats of harm, debt bondage, or document confiscation. Even if a victim has willingly agreed to come to the U.S., if they were brought here under false pretenses, this could mean they were trafficked. But the shame and embarrassment of being gullible or having been conned often prevent victims from seeking help.

Myth #6: Victims will always try to escape when they have the chance.

Fact: Many victims are too frightened, dependent, or even emotionally attached to their traffickers to leave. Traffickers are experts in psychological manipulation. Common tactics involve convincing victims that they’re in a loving relationship with their traffickers, making sure victims feel that they’re fully dependent on the trafficker for all of their basic needs, and making sure that victims know (or believe) that they’re under constant surveillance. They also threaten their families and loved ones back in their home countries with violence or with large debts.

Extracting victims from trafficking situations can be dangerous and complicated. It isn’t as easy as expecting victims to escape the first time they have the opportunity. The provision of an array of services, potentially including legal services, job training, and financial assistance is often necessary. And often long-term psychological therapy available is required to convince women to leave their abusive situations and to heal from the trauma that they have experienced.

By dispelling these myths and shedding light on the scope of the problem, we can make more people aware of the nuances and complexities of trafficking, increasing the chances of identifying and helping victims.

Mellissa Withers is an assistant professor of global health at the University of Southern California

1. The Polaris Project. 2012. Human Trafficking Cheat Sheet. Washington, D.C.: Polaris Project.

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