Equally fight all forms of human trafficking

In the United States, law, policy, and social attention focus on human trafficking, but with trafficking into sex work capturing the lion’s share of attention and trafficking into other sectors and industries remaining in the shadows. As a nation, we should strive to address and abolish all forms of forced labor equally, rather than be titillated into paying more attention to narratives around sex that are more exciting to policymakers and mainstream media.

Work across movements to address root causes

Human trafficking is an extreme violation of human rights. Poverty, racial inequality, LGBT discrimination, restrictive immigration policies, gender inequality, and a demand for cheap goods and services all contribute to an environment where human trafficking can flourish. But the good news is this means there are multiple entry points for us to create solutions to this problem. For example, working for the rights, safety, and needs of LGBT teens is a significant way of fighting human trafficking, as this group is especially vulnerable to coercion because they often have to leave hostile home environments and need a way to survive. Traffickers target teens in situations like this. More than 30% of trafficked people we see at the Sex Workers Project experienced LGBT discrimination in their families before being trafficked.

To end human trafficking, we will have to work to abolish its root causes. Americans have a history of not being afraid to solve these big issues. Let’s work together as a just society to solve the root problems that facilitate trafficking.

Take a new look at how we use the criminal justice system

We are a society that cares about safety, and wants to help when people get hurt. There are an abundance of federal and state programs and funds set up for crime victims, and we uphold the value of treating victims and survivors with respect in their pursuit of justice.

But, because prostitution is considered a crime, when people are trafficked into sex work they report being unable to come forward to seek help for what they’ve experienced and access remedies readily available to other crime victims. Further, because trafficked sex workers are arrested on prostitution-related charges, once they are out of the trafficking situation more than 50% of the trafficked people we help at the Sex Workers Project have criminal records that are obstacles to their career goals.

We should question whether the current laws criminalizing prostitution make sense when they almost always cause even more harm and marginalization for people trafficked into the sex industries. If we are to take seriously the fair and just treatment of crime victims and survivors, we should aim to avoid creating additional obstacles to their seeking help. All states should consider passing laws that create an opportunity for trafficked people to essentially erase the criminal convictions they have as a result of having been trafficked, as New York has done.

Provide appropriate care grounded in human rights

Trafficking survivors deserve to receive high-quality, evidence-based services that are grounded in human rights. Problematic programs like Project Rose in Arizona and those that aim to mobilize random community members without adequate training to “rescue” victims  are doing a disservice to trafficked people.

When people hear horrific stories about human trafficking, of course they want to help. But it’s key for that help to be effective assistance that trafficked people actually want and for it to help them reclaim their lives for the long term. This means supporting programs staffed by qualified professional service providers who can help with legal representation, social work, case management, and job training. In no other crime scenario--such as domestic violence, for example--would we think it’s appropriate to a) force victims and survivors to get “treatment” to avoid jail time, or b) enter the scene of a crime without the consent of survivors and carry out a self-styled “rescue” attempt. Let’s all just stop, take a deep breath, and assert that trafficked people deserve ethical, professional services by licensed social workers and lawyers.

Involve communities in the solutions

Communities pulling together to solve problems is a part of the fabric of our American culture. Let’s focus programs and initiatives on empowering communities and providing them with resources they need to fight human trafficking. One way to do this is to allocate a larger portion of governmental funding of anti-trafficking efforts to communities most affected by trafficking and non-profit organizations with a record of pragmatic and human rights–based programming. We can move the dialogue from law enforcement and self-styled “rescues” to one based on community solutions. This means focusing on supporting families in crisis, creating more living-wage jobs for people in unstable financial situations, creating a roadmap to citizenship for immigrants, and offering practical sexual education to young teens. We can solve the problem of human trafficking once 

DeBoise, LMSW, is the Co-Director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. She founded the Human Trafficking Services Program at New York Association for New Americans in 2002.