Here's What Human Trafficking Really Is

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Chances are you've seen Facebook friends changing their profile photos to a red X this week. The point of this is to spread awareness about the End It Movement, which aims to help end modern-day slavery and human trafficking. The statistics about human trafficking are alarming, to say the least: Between 20 and 45.8 million people are enslaved in the world, but there's no way to accurately pinpoint the exact population because it's so hidden.
"Most people don't know that there's more slavery now than any time in human history," says Gary Haugen, CEO of International Justice Mission, an anti-slavery organization that helps trafficking survivors and trains law enforcement to spot trafficking.
For something that's so rampant, there's still a lot that's misunderstood about human trafficking. Here's what you need to know:
What is (and isn't) human trafficking?
Human trafficking is, in short, a form of modern-day slavery, according to the Department of Homeland Security's Blue Campaign. Any time a person is exploited for labor — which can mean anything from sex trafficking to domestic servitude — through force, fraud, or coercion, that's considered human trafficking.
Sexual exploitation is the most commonly identified form of human trafficking (79% of cases or 4.5 million people), according to a UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. This statistic could very well be skewed, though, because those who are trafficked for sex work tend to be out in the open, so it gets reported more often. People can also be forced to work as factory workers, nannies, construction workers, and farmers. It's also important to keep in mind that sex trafficking is a completely different thing from sex work in general; people who are sex workers have consented to the sex they're having, while sex trafficked people are forced. That being said, if someone is under 18 and providing commercial sex acts, regardless of whether or not they were coerced, that's considered human trafficking.
The term "trafficking" is innately confusing, and human trafficking is not the same as "human smuggling," which means illegally moving someone across a border. Again, it goes back to consent: People who are being trafficked didn't consent to being moved, or initially consented but were then manipulated by the trafficker, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Why is it important to talk about?
Compared to the scope of the issue, human traffickers are rarely convicted because, putting it broadly, the crimes are really hard to catch. "Slavery is a crime of opportunity — people do it because they can get away with it," Haugen says. "In parts of the world, if you enslave someone, you're more at risk of being struck by lightning than going to jail." Part of this has to do with the hidden nature of these crimes, but it's also because, in many countries where slavery happens, there's a breakdown of basic law enforcement that prevents offenders from getting convicted, Haugen says. "Either law enforcement is corrupt and people are paid off to not enforce, or it's the most poor or marginalized in society being affected, so people don’t care if its not enforced," he says.
How can you spot it?
Human trafficking happens all across the United States, and not just in cities. Because it's such a hidden crime, it can often happen right under people's noses. Haugen's advice is to say something if you see something that seems concerning. "When you see something that doesn't make sense, it's a great idea to contact your local law enforcement," he says. "We have the benefit, being in the United States, that our law enforcement knows how to react to a tip." Haugen says to pay attention to the vulnerable population in your community, people who might be newly arrived from other communities, hidden away, or not as affluent.
Common indicators that someone's enslaved include: They're not able to come and go from their job as they please, they're unpaid or paid very little, they owe a huge debt to their boss, or they were recruited through false promises about the nature of their work. In many cases, the workplace itself is literally hidden or has crazy-high security measures (like opaque windows or barbed wire). And unfortunately, people who are enslaved in a human trafficking scenario might not know where they are, because they've been so cut off from the outside world. They often aren't in control of their own money, and have had their identification documents taken away from them. This might make them fearful around other people or anxious around law enforcement.
What can you do to help?
"Raise your voice with our government authorities and policy-makers," Haugen says. Right now, there's a petition on the IJM website that addresses legislation going to Congress for a global fund to end human slavery. You can also donate money to provide funds for trafficking survivors that help with anything from legal representation to medical care to vocational training for survivors. "You can help pay for investigations, because if you're a slave in a brick factory or brothel somewhere, you can't pay for an investigator," he says.
Besides spreading awareness, you can also make an effort to be an informed consumer, and ask questions about where things you're purchasing actually come from. "There's an opportunity to change this, because corporations think they have a reputation risk if there's slavery in a supply chain," Haugen says. In addition to companies that sell ethically-made products, he says there are even some brands that employ trafficking survivors so that they can sustain their families. As Haugen says, don't be afraid to ask the tough questions, because that's how progress is made: "Big brands are joining the fight against slavery because consumers are asking questions."
If you or someone you know is involved in human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.