Identifying Potential Victims of Human Trafficking by Recognizing Risk Factors


Human trafficking is global and affects a wide range of individuals. Victims can be from politically or geographically unstable areas abroad or within the United States, survivors of domestic or sexual violence, people displaced by armed conflict or natural disasters, and those who lack legal status.

Marginalized groups also face exclusion from housing, employment and civic life, which increases vulnerability to exploitation. Understanding these risk factors can help practitioners identify potential victims.

The Law

Human trafficking is a crime under the law in many countries. The legal framework for the crime draws on international human rights norms established through a series of treaties, covenants, and protocols since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Traffickers prey on individuals in a variety of industries. They exploit people for forced labor and commercial sex in domestic servitude, illegal massage parlors, nail and hair salons, exotic dance clubs, restaurants, factories, hotels, and farms. They also use individuals for financial gain by stealing money or possessions. Victims can be American or foreign citizens.

They may be in plain view or hidden behind doors. They can be adults or children. They may be affluent or poor, male or female. Contact a human trafficking law firm if you have been a victim so that you may concentrate on healing while they handle your case.

The Perpetrator

Despite the popular image of a hooded stranger snatching a victim off the street, traffickers are often known to victims or their family members. They usually target individuals who lack economic or employment opportunities, are homeless, have a history of abuse or mental or physical disability or lack legal immigration status.

Traffickers employ a variety of tactics to compel or coerce people into slavery and commercial sexual exploitation. Those tactics include force, fraud and coercion. They also impose debt bondage and confiscate travel documents.

Victims are forced to work or perform commercial sex in legal and illicit businesses, including hospitality, traveling sales crews, agriculture, factories, restaurants, salon services, care for persons with disabilities, fishing vessels, mining operations and private homes.

The Victim

Human traffickers prey on individuals whose vulnerability is increased by economic hardship, lack of stable housing, limited English proficiency, lawful immigration status, and other factors. Victims may be foreign or American citizens, children, women, men, or both. Sex and labor trafficking victims often develop a mindset of fear, distrust, and conflicting loyalties.

They may be bound by debt bondage or other control tactics, such as not being allowed to leave their work site or keeping their identifying documents. They may also suffer from psychological trauma and exhibit symptoms such as self-mutilation injuries, PTSD, depression, irrational fears, and social isolation. Healthcare practitioners should be alert to these red flags and consider a detailed work and social history, much as they would for a domestic or intimate partner violence patient.

The Trafficker’s Tactics

While the Hollywood version of human trafficking involves kidnapping and physical restraint, it is much more common for traffickers to use psychological manipulation. It can be threats, sex abuse, or even falsely promising to help a victim’s family back home. Traffickers may also use “invisible chains,” which keep victims tied to their abusers by fear of being reported to social services, law enforcement or the

Department of Children and Families; withholding food, money or other basic needs; imposing drug dependency, and making debt repayment a condition of freedom. People with serious vulnerabilities are frequently the targets of traffickers, including those who are poor, lack permanent housing or employment, are involved in the child protection system, or have mental health problems. People of color and immigrants are also more likely to experience trafficking.

The Crime

In addition to physical restraint and confinement, traffickers employ several psychological weapons to control their victims. These include fear, fraud, false promises regarding employment, debt, living conditions, love, marriage, or a better life. Traffickers exploit victims of every race and ethnicity.

They often target children in foster care or those with a juvenile record; individuals without lawful immigration status in the United States; gang members; domestic abuse victims; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQI+) individuals; and indigenous persons.

As with domestic violence, many healthcare providers fail to recognize trafficked individuals because they do not see the “red flags.” To avoid missing these victims, clinicians should consider asking patients questions about irrational fears, rumination, nightmares, self-mutilation injuries, and feelings of shame or guilt.


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