National Symposium on the Health Needs of Human Trafficking Victims: Post-Symposium Brief. Understanding the Definition of Human Trafficking and its Relationship to Other Populations


The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines trafficking as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel labor and/or commercial sexual activity. Under this definition, human trafficking can present itself in multiple ways and numerous settings. While the TVPA legally defines human trafficking, symposium participants and anti-trafficking experts pointed out that this comprehensive definition is not often used in the public arena, and sometimes it is not even employed by anti-trafficking service providers and advocates, who might view human trafficking as confined to foreign-born women subjected to sex trafficking. These discussants cited the media and other public outlets as common sources providing a restricted view of human trafficking that applies only to female victims of sex trafficking. This narrow focus disregards the significant number of male and transgender victims, as well as the millions of victims of labor trafficking who may not have experienced sexual coercion as well. It also does not adequately recognize those U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents subjected to sex or labor trafficking who never cross any national boundaries (i.e., domestic victims). The relevant criteria establishing whether an individual is a trafficking victim is the presence of force, fraud, or coercion, not movement across geographical space or membership in any nationality group.

In addition, anti-trafficking representatives pointed out that victims are sometimes defined narrowly as coming from the same background or sub-population. For example, reports on child sexual exploitation often assert that a significant number of minor, domestic female victims of commercial sexual exploitation are runaways. While this may be true for some domestic victims, assuming this is the case for all such female minor victims of sex trafficking may result in practitioners maintaining false assumptions and/or obtaining incomplete and inaccurate histories; this can result in unanticipated and potentially hazardous treatment strategies and outcomes. For example, if a physician working with a juvenile patient assumes he or she is a runaway, the physician may infer that something at the patients home prompted him or her to run away. This assumption could hinder family reunification for victims who are not runaways, or for whom reunification may be preferable. Symposium attendees representing multiple constituencies emphasized the importance of understanding that victims of trafficking can come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and exhibit a wide range of characteristics.

Symposium attendees concluded that discussions on human trafficking must take place at the practitioner and policy levels and incorporate a comprehensive definition of human trafficking in order to address the health issues facing this population and ensure proper care for all victims.

However, within this broad definition are several discrete categories of victims who often may need different types of services and support.

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