Sara Klimek

For many, the illegal sale, trading, and exploitation of children, women, and slaves seems like a ‘foreign’ problem.  The harsh reality, however, is that the United States is one of the most popular destinations and sources of human trafficking on the global scale.  According to the Organization for Human Rights, around 28% reported trafficking cases involved U.S. citizens.  And unfortunately, these rates are on the rise.


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Trafficking can encompass both forced labor and sex slavery.  Sex slavery entails someone being held against their will or threatened into completing sexual acts.  Under federal law, anyone under the age of 18 induced into the commercial sex industry is a victim of sex trafficking - regardless of the method used to intimidate them into the process.  Whether it be a person forced into prostitution, lured into the false promise of a ‘well-paying job,’ or forced into it by their family, victims of sex trafficking can suffer for weeks, months, or even years. Urban centers are hubs for prostitution; the trade in Denver, CO has a value of over $39.9 million while the trade in Atlanta is worth over $290 million.  Scarily enough, some of the most vulnerable people are children; the Centers for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 1 in 6 missing children are victims of sex trafficking.

Labor trafficking, which many associate with ‘slave labor’ may involve financial coercion, confiscation of money, or physical abuse to keep people in hazardous or low-paying positions.  Poverty and immigration status are two of the most common vulnerabilities that come with this form of trafficking.  In the United States, many labor trafficking operations operate in rural or ‘underground’ situations including farmwork, restaurants, beauty services, laboring, carnivals, and door-to-door sales.  Since 2007, the Polaris Project, a group aimed at ending human trafficking, has had nearly 5,700 reports of labor trafficking in the United States.

Labor trafficking and sex trafficking are both criminally-driven industries. Although penalties for trafficking have increased significantly over time, there still is a significant payoff from trafficking successfully.  One of the challenges associated with identifying trafficking and helping to alleviate it is the lack of self-help; victims are not willing to identify themselves and speak to law enforcement. In many similar abuse situations, traffickers may seek retribution when victims seek help or may have coerced victims into avoiding conversation with people that may recognize the situation.  Luckily, there are some ways that we can help people that may be victims of trafficking.  If you notice suspicious behavior, you can contact the Polaris Project, The Human Trafficking Hotline, your local police department, or any national crime hotline.  


Although penalties for trafficking have increased significantly over time, there's still a significant payoff from trafficking successfully.


Here are some of the most common tell-tale signs of trafficking victims.

1) Insists a third-party be present during conversations.

2) Lack of awareness towards surroundings, location, or finances.

3) Anxious, depressed, or paranoid behavior regarding law-enforcement, finances, or interactions between people of authority.

4) Poor physical health including bruises, genital wounds, malnourishment, or lacking healthcare.

5) (Youth) Showing intimate knowledge of sex, excessive tattoos or body modification (may be a way for pimps to ‘brand’ victims), display of gang paraphernalia, or excessive bragging of wealth/money/sex.

6) Is confined by high-security devices like security cameras, barbed wire, and opaque windows.

7) Limited freedom of travel or movement.

8) Limited clothing, most of which is sexual.

9) No proper eating or sleeping place.

While every situation is different, it’s critical that we recognize that victims can be all around us.  We need to keep our eyes open in our communities and lend a hand to those who would otherwise slip underneath the radar.


Sara is a managing editor at bSmart and Environmental Law student at the University of Vermont.  Outside of her studies, she enjoys spending time with her horses, doing yoga, and cooking.

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