Human Trafficking Into and Within the United States: A Review of the Literature. Commonalities Among Victims


While current stereotypes often depict the victims of human trafficking as innocent young girls who are seduced or kidnapped from their home countries and forced into the sex industry (Bruckert & Parent, 2002), it is not just young girls who are trafficked.  Men, women, and children of all ages can fall prey to traffickers for purposes of sex and/or labor.  Victims may be trafficked into the United States from other countries or may be foreign citizens already in the United States (legally or illegally) who are desperate to make a living to support themselves and their families in the United States or in their home countries (Florida University Center for Advancement of Human Rights, 2003).

Risk Factors for Trafficking Victims
  • Age
  • Poverty
  • Gender inequality
  • Unemployment
  • Sexual abuse
  • Health/mental health problems
  • Police/political corruption
  • High crime

Regardless of sex, age, immigration status, or citizenship, certain commonalities exist among victims of trafficking (for both sex and labor), such as their vulnerability to force, fraud, or coercion (Protection Project, 2002).  Traffickers prey on those with few economic opportunities and those struggling to meet basic needs.  Traffickers take advantage of the unequal status of women and girls in disadvantaged countries and communities, and capitalize on the demand for cheap, unprotected labor and the promotion of sex tourism in some countries (Aronowitz, 2001; Miller & Stewart, 1998).  Victims of human trafficking, both international and domestic, share other characteristics that place them at risk for being trafficked.  These include poverty, young age, limited education, lack of work opportunities, lack of family support (e.g., orphaned, runaway/throwaway, homeless, family members collaborating with traffickers), history of previous sexual abuse, health or mental health challenges, and living in vulnerable areas (e.g., areas with police corruption and high crime) (Salvation Army, 2006).

Victims of international trafficking may be trying to escape from internal strife such as civil war and economic crises (Aiko, 2002).  Many international trafficking victims originate from poor countries where human trafficking has become a significant source of income (Newman, 2006).  Traffickers exploit conditions in impoverished countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America that offer few employment opportunities and are characterized by high rates of organized crime and violence against women and children, discrimination against women, government corruption, political instability, and armed conflict (Bell, 2001; U.S. Department of State, 2005).  Many trafficking victims are merely trying to remove themselves from unstable or unsatisfactory living conditions.  According to the latest figures from HHS (as reported in the DoJ Annual Report to Congress), of those certified as victims of human trafficking in 2006, the countries of origin with the highest populations of victims were El Salvador (28%) and Mexico (20%) (U.S. Department of Justice, 2007).

A Federal Case of Domestic Labor Trafficking
Labor camp owners recruit homeless African-American addicts from shelters throughout the Southeast, including Tampa, Miami, Orlando, and New Orleans, to work at labor camps, promising food and shelter for only $50 a week.  The camp owners picked up the prospective workers in vans and transported them to isolated labor camps in North Florida and North Carolina.  Once on site, the workers were supplied with crack cocaine.  The cost of the drug was deducted from their pay checks.  Every evening camp owners gave workers the opportunity to buy crack, untaxed generic beer and cigarettes from the company store.  Most workers spiraled into debt.  On average, workers were paid about 30 cents on the dollar after deductions.  The case broke in 2005 after a Federal raid on the North Florida camp.  Advocates were stunned that the camps could so easily exploit American citizens.  (Naples Daily News, September 23, 2006)

Traffickers often deceive their victims through false promises of economic opportunities that await them in more affluent destination countries, such as the United States.  Thus routes of trafficking often flow from less developed countries to neighboring countries or industrialized nations with higher standards of living (Miko, 2000).

Many of those who accept offers from traffickers find themselves in situations where their documents are destroyed, their families are threatened with harm, or they are bonded by a debt they will not be able to repay (Human Trafficking Organization, 2006).  Traffickers use threats, intimidation, and violence, as well as deception and trickery, to force or lure victims to engage in sex or labor in slavery-like conditions.

Victims of labor trafficking may be promised well-paying jobs, yet once in the destination country they find themselves trapped in substandard living and working conditions.  In these situations, abuse can range from the imposition of excessive working hours to verbal and physical abuse to sexual harassment and sexual attacks, and may extend to forcing the worker into the sex trade (International Organization on Migration, 2005).  Migrants residing illegally in destination countries, such as the United States, are more exposed to this kind of abuse (Tuller, 2005).  However legal citizens also can be subjected to such exploitation (International Organization on Migration, 2005).  In the United States, vulnerable workers have been recruited from homeless shelters and elsewhere, transported to isolated labor camps, and ultimately exploited and abused.  According to some experts in the labor movement, the power differential between a farm worker and an employer can create a situation that may escalate into exploitation, regardless of the immigration status of the worker (Bales, 2004; Zeitlin, 2006). 

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