Myth: Human Trafficking Victims are Usually Hidden
By Meghan Hampsey
Human trafficking is often viewed as a clandestine crime that only happens on the fringes of society. Yet in reality, human trafficking victims come into regular contact with many people other than their traffickers. Victims often work in public-facing industries where they engage with consumers, employers, and coworkers on a daily basis.
In cases where traffickers bring foreign nationals to the United States, U.S. immigration and customs authorities are often the first to come into contact with them. These officials should be trained to recognize the signs of human trafficking, such as someone not being in control of one’s own travel documents, or seeming to be under the authority of his or her co-travelers.
Once victims enter the United States, they often cross paths with government entities. Adult establishments like strip clubs are high-risk areas for both sex and labor trafficking, but they are also highly regulated businesses. Both police and regulators should be aware of the signs of forced labor and sexual exploitation in the private sector—including workers not handling their own money, workers having excessively long work days, and the employment of minors.
Customers can very easily interact with trafficking victims and have no idea about it. In the New Jersey forced labor case U.S. v. Afolabi, where several underage victims were forced to work in hair braiding salons six to seven days a week, countless customers noticed that the victims seemed too young to be working but did not contact law enforcement. Similarly, in a forced labor case involving the exotic dancing industry, U.S. v. Maksimenko, victims routinely came into contact with strip club patrons, one of whom eventually facilitated their escape.
When third-party bystanders become suspicious of possible human trafficking cases, they may be reluctant to report their findings to the police. In cases where traffickers operate in full view of their family members or their tight-knit communities, these bystanders may actually end up protecting the traffickers rather than the victims.
Despite the efforts of law enforcement to detect human trafficking cases and recover victims, many victims slip through the cracks because people are not aware of the signs of human trafficking or do not report suspected cases to authorities. Greater public awareness is crucial for bringing perpetrators to justice and bringing victims out of exploitation. For more information on bystander intervention and victim recovery, please visit our webpage, Understanding Modern Slavery.