At a glance, human trafficking seems like problem the police are equipped to solve. Across the country, posters at truck stops and airports ask travelers to watch for warning signs — bruises, no luggage, avoiding eye contact — and dial hotline numbers to report suspicious behavior. Nearly every public event, from the Super Bowl to South by Southwest, comes with a police-led public awareness campaign about the urgency of stopping sexual exploitation.
But human trafficking is a far more complex phenomenon than these simple messages suggest. The vast majority of trafficking in the United States consists of forced labor, not sexual exploitation — foreign workers are duped into taking exploitative jobs by their employers or by unscrupulous recruitment agencies. Stories of immigrants being brought to the United States against their will in shipping containers are nothing more than urban legends.
And while it’s true that underage children are sometimes recruited into the sex trade, the vast majority of sex trafficking victims are not kidnapped from their homes by “Taken”-style organized cartels. Most are poor, queer, addicted or otherwise marginalized runaways who have been driven to “survival sex” after fleeing abusive families or foster homes.
These complexities mean that the best advice for getting the police involved with a suspected trafficking victim is one word: Don’t. It is almost impossible to spot a trafficking victim in an airport lounge or truck stop parking lot. If the person you think is a victim is not a U.S. national, calling the police could get them deported. If they’re involved in sex work, it will probably get them arrested. If they’re a runaway, they could be sent back to their abusive parents.
OK, but what if I am really sure something bad is happening?
This is where it gets depressing. Even if the “warning signs” of trafficking were as clear as they sound on public-awareness posters, few police departments are equipped to investigate worker exploitation or provide services to homeless, addicted or abused sex workers. Erin Albright, a consultant who has worked with local police departments on human trafficking for 13 years, said that the only situation in which she would advise calling 911 is if you directly witness a violent act.
“If someone is in physical danger, we really don’t have an alternative to the police,” she said. “In my entire career, I’ve never seen a citizen call to report trafficking and it turned out to be true.”
What are the alternatives to calling the police?
Two nonprofit organizations, Polaris and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, offer hotlines for citizens to report cases of suspected human trafficking.
But here, too, reporting a case of human trafficking isn’t as simple as dialing a number and waiting for the cavalry to arrive. While both of these organizations can link victims to services, their ability to help is limited in important ways.
First, they can’t provide immediate assistance. The only way they can send help to someone in danger of harm or experiencing a crisis is by forwarding the call to local police. Second, while they can provide information to victims about social services, these services are severely limited. The entire state of Louisiana, for example, has just 291 beds available to trafficking victims ― most of which are simply bunks in homeless shelters. Victims of abusive working conditions have to initiate lengthy court cases against their employers to receive justice.
How can I help advocate for better options to help vulnerable people?
Albright said the key to fighting trafficking is resolving the inequalities that make people vulnerable to exploitation. If you really want to end trafficking, she said, join a local coalition fighting to expand needle exchanges, homeless shelters or outreach programs. Get involved in sex workers’ rights organizations advocating for the decriminalization of sex work — one of the primary reasons sex workers are vulnerable to abuse is the black-market nature of their industry. Work with criminal justice organizations pushing to prosecute abusive employers.
And if you do see someone out in the world who looks lost, lonely or hungry, she said, “you could always just buy them a burger.”
Where can I go for more information and resources?
- The Sex Workers Outreach Project is a nonprofit that provides services and advocates for the rights of sex workers.
- The National Coalition for the Homeless works to end homelessness and provides services to homeless individuals.
- The National Immigrant Justice Center provides legal aid for immigrants and asylum-seekers.
- True Colors United works to end youth homelessness, especially for queer young people.