It’s hard to know if human trafficking is growing more common or if we are becoming more aware of this depravity. Increased access to news and information certainly has made us more aware of societal challenges in general, and trafficking specifically. This awareness has resulted in greater attention to disrupting this illegal activity. However, it remains extremely difficult to identify and provide services to victims of trafficking. The issue remains so significant that the White House has undertaken initiatives to end human trafficking within the United States and internationally.
A major challenge is the fact that victims generally have few resources or connections to community supports. Their ability to move freely in their communities is restricted and victims are often closely monitored to reduce the likelihood of their escaping their situation. These challenges are exacerbated by the fact that in some cases, victims are considered criminals themselves. In the case of forced prostitution, the victim of sex trafficking is often the first to be identified as participating in illegal activities. Add to this the lack of resources and social isolation accompanying trafficking victimization and there are few options but to stay in the abusive situation. Seeking help by identifying the person responsible for trafficking can mean the loss of food, shelter, and the only support system available. The result is often a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.
In the past few years, the media has reported instances of human trafficking taking on many forms. Forced labor in many industries has highlighted the pervasiveness of this problem. Domestic (household) laborers, farm hands, hair and nail salon workers, even convenience store clerks have been identified in law enforcement raids exposing trafficking activities. The fact that the victims are living and working within our communities without detection is particularly unsettling. Even more unsettling is the fact that they are unable to seek assistance in leaving the situation, despite living and working in our communities.
This challenge started me thinking of something that millions of children have been told for decades. Most children grow up learning that a simple symbol, usually posted in fire stations and public places, identifies that the location is a refuge, a safe haven for children or youth who feel threatened or in need of assistance. An example of this is the National Safe Place program, which includes the tag line, “For Youth…Some Place To Go, Someone To Help”. This symbol in a window signals youth that they can get help at the location.
Communities across the country have similar local or regional programs with this theme. Generally, the universal symbol of a house includes bold, easily identified text to mark safe havens for youth in the community. So what if there were a universal symbol that would be recognizable to adults (and youth) victims of human trafficking? What if a sign in a window could signal victims that they could access services and assistance in leaving their life of involuntary servitude? And what if the people working in the locations bearing this sign were trained in helping trafficking victims to free themselves from abusive relationships? Perhaps this sign would look something like this:
[I never claimed to be a graphic artist….but hopefully the message is clear.]
Persons at these locations would be trained in assisting trafficking victims. They would understand that sometimes the abuser will claim to be a parent, spouse, or friend of the victim. And oftentimes the victim will feel compelled to go along with the lie, for fear of their life or that of a loved one. Persons at these locations would be trained to recognize the learned helplessness and fear that often accompanies trafficking. While they may not be therapists, they would know how to connect trafficking victims with people who can effectively intervene to disrupt the abusive relationship. Public service organizations such as fire and police departments, human service agencies, and non-profit agencies might be among those with employees trained in offering a safe escape to trafficking victims. Other commonly accessed locations such as convenience stores and grocery stores might also train employees to immediately call on law enforcement or support programs to assist when a victim seeks help. Many hotels and motels currently receive training in recognizing signs of trafficking as these facilities are often utilized by human traffickers.
Taking this concept a step further, technology might be utilized to increase awareness and access to ‘Safe Escape’ locations. An app, disguised as a mapping service or public transit locator to avoid detection by abusers, might allow victims to quickly identify nearby ‘Safe Escape’ locations using a mobile device. While some victims may not have access to a mobile device, this could be a life-saver for those that do have mobile access.
What is clear is that current efforts to detect and eliminate human trafficking have not successfully eradicated the problem. Given the insidious nature and pervasiveness of the issue, innovative and comprehensive solutions are needed. As always, feedback regarding the ‘Safe Escape’ concept proposed is welcomed. For information on new technologies for serving victims of human trafficking, see my previous post, Innovative Resource for Victims of Human Trafficking.