Identifying Victims of Human Trafficking: Inherent Challenges and Promising Strategies from the Field. What are the challenges and barriers to identifying victims?


Nature of the Crime

The most common and perhaps obvious challenge to identifying victims of human trafficking for those in the field is the hidden nature of the crime. Many international victims are brought into the country illegally; with traffickers using their illegal entry as a form of control. Such victims are usually unaware of their rights as victims, do not understand the laws of the United States or the language spoken; all factors helping to control the victim and keep the crime (and the victim) hidden. Both international and domestic victims are often kept isolated, with no freedom of movement. Contact with the outside world is controlled by the trafficker and often limited to those working for the trafficker, other victims, and in the case of sex trafficking, the johns. Victims become dependent on the trafficker and may not even consider themselves to be victims; another factor making identification difficult.

"Use of the internet by traffickers to 'recruit' victims, advertise to johns, and move girls has made it even more difficult to fight this crime."

Law enforcement officer

It was also reported that traffickers rely on a victim's fear as a way to keep the victim hidden. This includes fear of law enforcement and an inability to trust those in positions of authority; fear of retaliation against the victim or his/her family; and fear of anyone finding out what has happened to the victim (e.g., shame to self and family).

Awareness/Understanding of the Problem

While the hidden nature of the crime is a major obstacle, law enforcement and service providers acknowledge that a lack of awareness of the crime of human trafficking confounds the problem. That is, even if victims were more visible, respondents report that most of the general public would not recognize a victim if they saw one. The experiences in the field suggest that, across communities, most people do not believe that human trafficking exists in today's society and in particular, in their communities. Even in those areas where attempts have been made to raise awareness, there remains confusion regarding who is a victim.

The stereotype presented earlier regarding international sex trafficking exists not only among the general public but among some law enforcement and service providers. That is, victims are viewed as foreign born, young females forced into prostitution. It was evident, especially when talking with providers working with domestic runaway and homeless youth, that there is an overall lack of knowledge and understanding that human trafficking can occur domestically. Specifically, the fact that the prostitution of U.S. minors likely constitutes human trafficking is not well understood by most providers or even law enforcement.

Many involved in the study point to recent popular media portrayals of human trafficking crimes and high profile cases as possible explanations for the lack of a comprehensive understanding of the crime of human trafficking and its victims. Specifically, the lack of focus on domestic victims (e.g., U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents), male victims, and labor trafficking (especially single victim domestic servitude cases) is recognized as a contributing factor to the misconceptions surrounding this crime.

It was clear that even though awareness of human trafficking has in fact increased such a full and complete understanding of human trafficking remains a challenge.

Perceptions of Victims

Two primary reasons given for why victims who come in contact with those who can help them (e.g., law enforcement, shelter providers, and outreach workers) often go unidentified include: 1) victims do not identify themselves as victims; and 2) others do not view victims as victims.

Many victims, whether international or domestic, do not believe that they are a victim of a crime. This is often due to their lack of education and understanding of human trafficking and their lack of awareness of their rights as a victim. But according to law enforcement and service providers who have worked with victims, victims are also frequently told by their traffickers that they are to blame for their circumstance and that they are the criminals who will be deported or arrested if caught. And due to their past and current experiences, many victims believe this portrayal of reality presented by the traffickers.

In other situations, the victim has come to depend on her trafficker and views the trafficker as her protector or in some cases, boyfriend. Service providers equate this to the Stockholm Syndrome experienced by prisoners of war. In these cases, the victim not only does not see him/herself as a victim but they do not believe their trafficker has done anything wrong.

When a victim does not view him/herself as a victim, the interactions with law enforcement and others trying to help them are often negative and sometimes hostile. According to law enforcement and some shelter providers, this was especially the case with domestic minor victims of sex trafficking.

But it is not only victims that do not always view themselves as victims. Another challenge to identifying victims is the lack of acknowledgement by some law enforcement and service providers that someone is a victim of trafficking. There were examples given of victims who were viewed first as undocumented, or illegal, immigrants and treated as criminals and subjected to deportation hearings. In other cases, victims were viewed first as prostitutes and charged with solicitation and placed in jail or detention (even in cases involving minors). These cases serve to reinforce the message of traffickers that the victims will be treated as criminals if they come to the attention of authorities, buttresses the perception of victims that they are to blame, and enhances the power and control of traffickers over their victims.

"Getting law enforcement, in particular ICE agents, to consider that an illegal immigrant may be a victim or getting a Vice cop to consider that a prostitute may be a victim will not happen overnight. It is similar to what we saw in the domestic violence field. It has taken us decades to view domestic violence as a crime and to recognize that there are victims of this crime. We can't expect this same type of change to occur with trafficking over night."

Victim service provider

While law enforcement and service providers both acknowledge that more education is needed to address these challenges, they recognize that the solution to this barrier requires something more akin to a paradigm shift in how we think and do business (see insert on this page, above).

Law enforcement and service providers fear that many victims are falling through the cracks and going unnoticed. Those in positions to best identify victims may not realize it.


There has been a lot of criticism of law enforcement and others regarding the relatively small number of victims of human trafficking that have been identified to date in relation to the estimates of victims that exist. In addition to the challenges already identified, all those involved in the study point to a lack of resources as a significant factor limiting their ability to identify significant factor limiting their ability to identify victims. This includes limited officers to investigate cases and interview potential victims; limited resources for direct outreach by service providers and advocates to educate and identify potential victims; and limited resources for targeted training and ongoing technical assistance to those agencies in positions to help law enforcement identify potential cases and victims.

"Even if we could overcome all of these other barriers, we just don't have the manpower or resources to investigate these cases. Trafficking cases take a lot of time and few officers are dedicated just to working these cases. It becomes collateral duty for most of us. Until human trafficking is made a priority, we will never find more victims."

Law enforcement office

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