What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is the illegal trade in human beings for the purpose of exploitation. Forced Labor and Sexual Exploitation are the most common manifestations of the trade. Forced labor or service can be involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or modern day slavery. Commercial sex acts/Sexual exploitation most often look like pimping, pandering, or employing a minor to produce or distribute pornography.

Who is Susceptible ?  1

While anyone from any community can be trafficked, statistically, victims are most vulnerable if they:

-Have an unstable living condition

-Have a history of domestic violence

-Has a caregiver or family member who has a substance abuse issue

-Are runaways or involved in the juvenile justice or foster care system

-Are *undocumented immigrants

-Are facing poverty or economic need

-Have a history of sexual abuse

-Are addicted to drugs or alcohol

*Undocumented people are further marginalized due to fear of law enforcement. Traffickers know and weaponize this fear.*

Generational trauma, historic oppression, discrimination, and societal inequities create community-wide vulnerabilities. Traffickers recognize these vulnerabilities and take advantage. People of Color (including First Peoples) and those who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community are especially affected.

Indications of Human Trafficking  2

Keeping victims isolated – sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally – is a key method of control in most labor trafficking situations. But that does not mean you never cross paths with someone who is being trafficked. A contractor might notice that a subcontractor’s team appears to be sleeping in unfinished homes, or a suburban mom might learn from a nanny at her local playground that her employer mistreats and threatens her.

  • Feel pressured by their employer to stay in a job or situation they want to leave
  • Owe money to an employer or recruiter and/or not being paid what they were promised or are owed
  • Do not have control of their passport or other identity documents
  • Are living and working in isolated conditions, largely cut off from interaction with others or support systems
  • Appear to be monitored by another person when talking or interacting with others
  • Are being threatened by their boss with deportation or other harm
  • Are working in dangerous conditions, without proper safety gear, training, adequate breaks and other protections
  • Are living in dangerous, overcrowded or inhumane conditions provided by an employer

    Stories like these should raise a red flag:
    -A potential employer who refuses to give workers a signed contract, or asks them to sign a contract in a language they cannot read
    -A potential employer who charges a potential worker fees for the ‘opportunity’ to work in a particular job.
    -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 (younger/older; wealthy/struggling) romantic relationship
    -A family member, friend, co-worker or student is developing a relationship which seems “too close” with someone they know solely on social media
    -A family member, friend or coworker is offered a job opportunity that appears too good to be true
    -A family member, friend or coworker is recruited for an opportunity that requires them to move far away but their recruiter/prospective employer evades answering their questions or is reluctant to provide detailed information about the job.



How do Traffickers Prey on victims?  3

*Human traffickers manipulate their victims using violence and by preying on instability and desperation. Traffickers first gain trust of victims- offering companionship, shelter, food, drugs, ‘love’. *

  • Sex-traffickers hunt for victims outside large group homes filled with foster kids who have been abandoned by their families and near high schools because “victimization is all about vulnerability”.

  • Pimps use time to groom their victims, flatter them, make them think they love them until they’re close enough to make their move. “The method is to try and put their arm around them and gain their trust and give them a place to stay and make it look as if someone actually cares about them.” It’s about “taking kids who are in need of help, preying upon that need, developing a relationship and then turning against them and turning them into kids who are making money for them on the street.”
  • It can be an individual who is on Facebook and is friend-requesting all of the students who say they attend a certain middle school. And then when one or two accept, they friend-request all of their friends and so on.… By the time they’re friend-requesting a vulnerable youth, they have 30 mutual friends, and they seem that they’re legitimate.


  • A trafficker comes and says, ‘You know, you’re more mature than other youth your age, there’s something special about you, tell me about your goals, who do you want to be.’ They spend this time getting to know them, and there’s no way for that youth to know this is all part of the grooming process. It’s all done to make the youth feel special. [The traffickers] spend time making connections with them in order to exploit them later on.


  • “He managed to get in a conversation with me about a party that he was going to do, and that a famous celebrity, Meek Mill, was going to be there . . . So he asked me if I’d like to go.”  The pimp told Alexis to come back that night in heels and sexy clothes. He said he also needed racy pictures of her — for the party’s “VIP list.” He gave her a cup of sparkling wine in the car on the way to the party, and suddenly, “I felt my jaw was like locked. I started getting, like, hot.” The hustler brought her to a motel room, where men were waiting to pay to rape her — having seen ads he had made with her photos on Backpage.com.

“Why Don’t Victims Just Leave?” 4

Physical Barriers

Captivity/confinement: victims being locked indoors, held in guarded compounds, or locked in trunks of cars.

Facilitated drug addition: in certain trafficking networks, traffickers provide addictive substances to their victims to foster longer-term drug addiction and monetary dependency.

Isolation: traffickers purposefully isolate victims from a positive support structure and foster controlled environments where the victim is kept in a state of complete dependency. High levels of dependency and learned helplessness often lead victims to stay in their situation rather than face the uncertain path of leaving.

Frequent accompaniment/guarded: in many trafficking networks, victims public interactions are mediated, monitored, or entirely controlled. In severe cases, victims have been controlled by armed guards.

Use of threat/violence: severe physical retaliation (ex: beatings, rape, sexual assault, torture) are combined with threats to hold victims in a constant state of fear and obedience.

Use of reprisals and threats of reprisals against loved ones or third parties: traffickers target reprisals at children, parents, siblings, and friends, or other trafficking victims.

Psychological Barriers

Traumatic bonding to the trafficker: in many trafficking cases, victims have exhibited commonly known behaviors of traumatic bonding due to the violence and psychological abuse (a.k.a. Stockholm Syndrome).

Psychological trauma: many trafficking victims experience significant levels of psychological trauma due to the levels of abuse they have endured. In certain cases, this trauma leads to disassociation, depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which in turn affects daily functioning and levels of agency.

Low levels of self-identifying as trafficking victims: The majority go victims do not self-identify as victims of human trafficking. They may be unaware of the elements of the crime or programs in place to protect them.

Normalization of exploitation: over a long period of enduring severe levels of trauma, physical abuse, and psychological manipulation, victims demonstrate resilience strategies and defense mechanisms that normalize the abuse in their minds. In a relative mental assessment, what once may have been viewed as abuse may now be experienced as a normal part of everyday life. This changing ‘lens’ on viewing the world impacts the ability to self-identify as a victim.

Emotional Barriers

Shame: victims from all cultures and in both sex and labor cases may be profoundly ashamed about the activities they have been forced to perform. Self-blame links closely to low-self esteem.

Self-blame: in the face of an extremely psychologically manipulative situation, trafficked persons may engage in self-blaming attitudes and blame themselves for being duped into a situation beyond their control. Self-blaming attitudes are often reinforced by the traffickers and can serve to impede the victim from testifying or faulting the trafficker. 

False hope: traffickers use sophisticated methods of manipulating the human desire to hope through false promises and lies about a future better life. Victims who are children are especially vulnerable to these false promises.

Hopelessness and resignation: in the face of extreme control, violence, and captivity, notions of hope may fade over time towards states of hopelessness and resignation. 

Fear: fear manifests in many ways in a trafficking situation: including fear of physical retaliation, death, arrest of harm to one’s loved ones.

Social Barriers

Language and social barriers: feelings of unfamiliarity or fear of the unknown provide obstacles to leaving a trafficking situation. These feelings are exacerbated by language and social barriers.

*Distrust of law enforcement to service providers: in many cases, traffickers are known to brainwash victims into a false distrust of law enforcement, government officials, and service providers. Victims also may have had negative past experiences with institutional systems, which also impact trust levels.

Lack of awareness of available resources: victims may not leave a situation due to a lack of awareness of any resources or services designed to help them. Traffickers purposefully control the information that victims receive.

* “On every level, distrust of law enforcement runs deep through minority and immigrant communities, especially among people from countries where police are often the perpetrators of some of the worst offenses. Victims who are undocumented also fear that coming forward will result in automatic deportation.”