How Human Trafficking Works

Finding Human Trafficking Victims

You only have to learn a little bit about the horrors of human trafficking to want to find its victims and help them. In 2000, the United States passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and in the same year, the United Nations passed the Palermo Protocols, which called on member countries to fight this crime. U.S. President George W. Bush allocated millions of dollars in the course of his term to rescuing trafficking victims.

Unfortunately, the victims are proving hard to find, although many believe they're hiding right out in the open. When you drive down the street and spot a young, teenage girl in revealing clothing, do you see her as a likely troublemaker? If you pass a field full of migrant laborers, do you grumble about immigration laws in this country, or think they're lucky to have a job? Though we might not know it, we may be looking at human trafficking victims, people who didn't choose this kind of life. Not only do they not receive financial compensation for their work, they may face hours of abuse upon returning to the place they're kept or even be treated like criminals by the very people who are supposed to protect them.

Even law enforcement officials often don't recognize victims of human trafficking. If the police raid a brothel, for example, the prostitutes will be brought in on criminal charges while the trafficker is allowed to go free. Also, police officers may not know the right questions to ask to determine if people are working against their will. Furthermore, the victims may fear reprisals against their families by traffickers if they cooperate with police, so they keep their mouths shut and the dangerous cycle just continues. Even worse, some victims may be coming from countries where traffickers pay law enforcement officials to look the other way.

Because of the force and coercion that dominates their lives, victims are too scared to come forward. That's why it's important that police and ordinary citizens learn more about the signs of trafficking and know the right questions to ask when they encounter a potential victim. Though it's likely that victims will be coached by their captors about ways to answer certain queries, questions about whether they've endured violence, where they sleep, who they live with and whether they can leave as they please might provide important clues to their situation.

U.S. law enforcement officials are still formulating the best ways to ask these questions and find victims, but the relatively few prosecutions for this crime in the past decade have led some to ask whether we're looking in the right places -- and even whether we should be looking at all.