By Nicole Caldwell, Undergraduate Student: B.A. in French with a minor in Political Science, University of Missouri in St. Louis (UMSL); Gateway Human Trafficking Intern.
If someone asked you to identify a potential trafficking victim, what signs would you look for?
Many people might imagine the victim bearing signs of physical abuse or associate trafficking with gruesome images, yet researchers have discovered that our assumptions about what trafficking victims look like are not always accurate.
Indicators for trafficking also vary amongst different populations such as immigrants, children, LGBTQ+ members, or individual with disabilities trafficking victims. Indicators might be quite difficult to detect, so it is imperative to understand the warning signs.
Trafficking indicators (also known as signs or “red flags”) are observable characteristics such as behaviors or physical descriptions that might indicate someone is a human trafficking victim. Not all victims will display the same indicators; however, it is beneficial to know indicators commonly found in victims to better recognize and help them.
In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, researchers found that the most commonly reported trafficking indicators were mental health concerns (1). Service providers reported that many victims experienced depression, anxiety, shame/guilt, and low self-esteem. Contrary to what one might think, evidence of physical abuse and markings such as tattoos and brands were some of the least observed signs. Although some trafficking victims can be recognized through such indicators; they are less common than initially assumed.
Social service providers also reported that victims typically faced social isolation, meaning they had little if any interaction with family or friends. Another commonly reported indicator related to victim’s health care which included frequent and recurrent sexually transmitted infections or poor dental hygiene.
Labor trafficking victims who often work in dangerous or harsh conditions might be in particularly poor health. Health care professionals in particular must make note of this important sign.
It can be difficult to spot trafficking indicators in minors. Minors are often trafficked by people they consider to be friends, family, or significant others so they might not identify themselves as victims or seek help. Some signs of trafficking in minors include-but not limited to: an increase in mental health concerns, frequent and unusual school absences, disinterest in school, an abnormal number of sexual partners or sexual health concerns for their age, and material items that seem atypical for the student to own. For example, the minor might suddenly own an expensive pair of shoes but cannot provide an explanation for how they obtained them. It is important to know these signs because minors rarely self-report. Minors might have negative perceptions about social service providers or other authorities, making it even harder to gain their trust.
Labor trafficking victims, just like sex trafficking victims, might not even realize they are victims. They might assume they just have a bad boss or dislike their job without understanding the true nature of the situation. One indicator includes employer provided housing; labor traffickers might offer housing as part of the job. This might initially seem like a great benefit; however, this can be used to force victims to continue working against their will. A 2019 study that examined job advertisements for potential signs of human trafficking noticed that employer provided accommodation was the most prevalent warning sign appearing in ads targeted toward migrants trafficking victims. Migrants are at particular risk for such trafficking schemes because many need help finding housing, employment, and transportation in a foreign country (2).
Traffickers might also use a victim’s immigration or foreign status to threaten them with deportation if they attempt to quit. Individuals with valid work visas can even become trafficking victims because many visas are tied to a single employer. Thus, employers can potentially abuse their employees and threaten deportation if they attempt to flee. Additionally, traffickers might claim the victim owes them debts and will withhold paychecks until these fictitious debts are “paid off.” If someone feels obligated to remain with their employer even though they feel threatened, unsafe, or trapped, they could be a labor trafficking victim.
Communities must act as eyes and ears for trafficking victims. Many victims do not understand that they are being exploited or do not know how to seek help. Detection is the first step to saving a victim. Anyone can be a trafficking victim: an adult, a child, a man, a woman, a citizen, or an illegal immigrant. Knowing the signs makes it easier to spot who actually is.
1) Examining Commonly Reported Sex Trafficking Indicators from Practitioners Perspectives: Findings from a Pilot Study by Gerassi, Lara et a.l.
2) Volodko, Ada. “Spotting the Signs of trafficking recruitment online: exploring the characteristics of advertisements targeted at migrant job seekers”