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How to Spot Human Trafficking: Know Their Stories

In the anti-human trafficking field, it’s common to hear phrases like, “human trafficking can happen to anyone,” or “it’s happening in our backyard.” But while these statements are technically true, they don’t capture who the majority of trafficking victims are: people stuck in vulnerable situations.

According to Polaris, vulnerable situations include:

  • an unstable living situation

  • poverty or economic need

  • a history of domestic violence

  • a history of sexual abuse

  • having a caregiver or family member who has a substance abuse issue

  • having an addiction to drugs or alcohol

  • being a runaway or involved in the juvenile justice or foster care system

  • being an undocumented immigrant

These situations are often complicated, messy, and may be difficult to spot. But as Polaris reminds us—”it’s not knowing the signs, it’s knowing the story” that matters.

Knowing someone’s story means knowing where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re heading. It means knowing people, not just picking up on non-contextual clues. This often takes more time and effort than assessing someone based on indicators, but it can prove more effective in the long run. If you want to fight human trafficking well, get to know people—especially those that might be in vulnerable situations.

The truth is, most victims are isolated and/or have little family support (sometimes family members are the traffickers). Take Nikki, for example, who grew up in the foster care system and lacked stability and control. According to the annual Trafficking In Persons report published by the Department of State, children in foster care are more susceptible to human trafficking. Because of Nikki’s unstable situation, she was more vulnerable when a 20-year-old man at the mall showed interest in her. He employed loverboy tactics to manipulate her into thinking he loved her (and that she loved him), but soon began selling her body for sex after she moved in with him at the age of 17.

Rebecca Bender shares a similar story. Although she didn’t grow up in the foster care system, she found herself in the same situation where a man lured her into trafficking with a romantic relationship as his front. Polaris warns that individuals may be in vulnerable situations if a “friend, family member, co-worker or student appears to be newly showered with gifts or money or otherwise become the object of some kind of overwhelming, fast-moving and asymmetric (young/older; wealthy/struggling) romantic relationship.”

As we’ve mentioned before, friends and family are among the top points of access to offer potential help for victims. Additionally, The Human Trafficking Hotline has repeatedly reported that community members are the largest category of callers to provide information on cases (they made up 30% of callers in 2018). As we understand survivors’ stories and the vulnerable situations they’re in, we can continue to become valuable fighters and advocates for victims.

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