Human Trafficking

“Trafficking in persons,” “human trafficking,” and “modern slavery” are umbrella terms – often used interchangeably – to refer to a crime whereby traffickers exploit and profit at the expense of adults or children by compelling them to perform labor or engage in commercial sex.  When a person younger than 18 is used to perform a commercial sex act, it is a crime regardless of whether there is any force, fraud, or coercion involved. Every year, millions of men, women, and children are trafficked worldwide.

It can happen in any community and victims can be any age, race, gender, or nationality. Traffickers might use violence, manipulation, or false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations. Language barriers, fear of their traffickers, and/or fear of law enforcement frequently keep victims from seeking help, making human trafficking a hidden crime. This page provides general information and resources on human trafficking, what laws are in place to prosecute offenders, and how to protect yourself from predators. 

Human trafficking is the crime of using force or deception to exploit victims for services and profit, most commonly involving coerced labor or sexual acts. It includes harboring victims, recruiting them, transporting, or receiving them. Human trafficking comes in many forms, such as debt bondage, domestic servitude, forced begging, organ harvesting, sex trafficking, and labor trafficking. Victims and perpetrators can be anyone, coercion can be obvious or subtle, and human trafficking is a problem in both the United States and throughout the world. How common is human trafficking in the United States?

Yes. Americans may think of human trafficking as only being prevalent in third-world countries. However, it is both persistent and on the rise in the United States. Human trafficking is a hidden and undetected crime, so it is safe to assume the reported incidents underrepresent the actual numbers. In 2020, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline received reports of 10,583 human trafficking situations in the U.S. that involved 16,658 victims. From 2007 to 2020, the Hotline opened 73,946 – an average of almost 16 per day. Cumulatively, the Hotline received an average of 69 phone calls, emails, and online per day in the same years.

Human trafficking occurs worldwide. Victims are trafficked in their home country, while abroad, or are transported through multiple countries. Given the international nature of the crime, the UNDOC criminalized international human trafficking and has recorded data from 148 countries. According to the  United Nation’s 2020 trafficking report, there were about 50,000 known victims across all forms of trafficking in 2018 in all recorded countries. This number is underinclusive. Human trafficking is a hidden and sometimes undetected crime; not all victims are discovered.

Anyone can become a victim of human trafficking. Human trafficking does not discriminate. Men, women, and children of all ages and backgrounds have been victims. Human traffickers claim victims regardless of their socioeconomic status, education, race, nationality, citizenship, or any other factor. Traffickers do, however, tend to seek out people that they deem more vulnerable. They are more likely to compel or entice people who are desperate due to their situation or finances, people with disabilities, people with poor education, and people who are homeless.

Traffickers come from a wide array of backgrounds and unexpected places. They can be owners of businesses, companies, or farms. An employer who threatens to report an employee’s illegal immigration status unless they work for free is an example of workplace-related human trafficking.

Traffickers use a variety of tactics when claiming victims. Not all of them are overt; some are more subtle and less likely to arouse suspicion by the target or onlookers. Types of coercion traffickers use to recruit or compel victims include: 

  • Physical force, including restraint, and sexual assault
  • Threats to use physical harm
  • Emotional manipulation, such as by feigning a romantic relationship with a victim they are grooming
  • Confinement and surveillance
  • Fraud, including false job promises
  • Deception, such as enticing someone to follow them to a secluded area or online phishing scams
  • Threats to report an individual’s immigration status to authorities
  • Threats to make illicit or otherwise private information about or photos of the individual public

Human trafficking takes many forms and is pervasive throughout multiple industries. Sex trafficking and labor trafficking are the most common. Trafficking includes: 

Sex Trafficking – This involves coercing or deceiving victims to engage in the commercial sex industry. If the victim is under 18 years old, a crime is committed even if the perpetrator did not use force or other illicit recruiting tactics and even if the child consented.

Labor Trafficking. Victims may be forced to work in harsh conditions without pay. Labor trafficking can consist of an entire factory or warehouse of forced employees, or it may entail an employer exploiting a single employee in an otherwise legitimate business. As in sex trafficking, children are also victims of labor trafficking.

Domestic Servitude. This is a form of labor trafficking and occurs behind closed doors in private homes, often involving a single individual being indentured to a household.

Debt Bondage. This is a form of labor trafficking, wherein a person pledges to work to pay off a debt. Traffickers trick these workers by creating their debt in the first place or paying them so little that the debt will never be repaid

There are no easy telltale signs that someone is a trafficker. Traffickers come from all backgrounds and may act with criminal organizations, act alone, or even be someone the victim knows. Be mindful of tactics that manipulate a person into becoming overly reliant on the person using them, such as:

  • Isolating a person from family, friends, employees, and other peers
  • Convincing a person that they do not need anyone besides them
  • Controlling a person’s decisions by influencing their emotions
  • Trivializing a person’s feelings
  • Guilt-tripping

Victims cannot always seek help themselves. It is important that the public understand signs that a person could be a human trafficking victim so authorities can intervene. Physical and emotional abuse can show. Examples of some of the more visible signs are:

  • Bruises or marks
  • Malnourishment
  • Appearing insecure and avoiding social interaction and eye contact
  • Unwillingness to speak or scripted speech
  • Constantly looking to another person for approval
  • Always with another person, seeming unable to be alone

Be careful who you trust. Traffickers can be someone the victim knows – an employer, a parent, or a romantic partner. These tips can help you protect yourself. 

Be cautious online. Traffickers are learning to adapt their recruitment methods to be effective online. Traffickers may message a person on social media and garner their trust, use phishing links (the fraudulent practice of sending emails purporting to be from reputable companies to induce individuals to reveal personal information) or viruses to learn a person’s geolocational information, or post fake job advertisements. Be careful when talking to a stranger online, especially if they ask to meet in person. Do not click on suspicious links or respond to spam text messages to avoid unintentionally sharing your personal information. Research jobs before providing your information on an application. Be mindful that jobs that sound too good to be true sometimes are. 

Ask for help. If you believe you are being manipulated or exploited, seek help. Authorities and peers can help you notice warning signs you may have missed, and they can remove you from an abusive situation. Of course, call 911 in emergencies. Friends and family were the number one source of assistance for trafficking victims from 2018 to 2020, according to Polaris. In 2020, 40% of identified victims confided in friends and family for help. More formal resources, such as police and the National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH), are also available. 

Visit the Blue Campaign website for more information on how to protect yourself and get help.

The Peonage, Slavery, and Trafficking in Persons act. 

The primary federal law concerning trafficking is the Peonage, Slavery, and Trafficking in Persons. Violations under this law are sometimes referred to as “Chapter 77 offenses.” The statute’s provisions define and address various types of trafficking, all of which involve exploitation. 

  • Peonage criminalizes peonage, which is a form of labor trafficking. Peonage is also known as “debt servitude” – threatening or otherwise forcing a person to work against their will to pay off a debt. 
  • Forced Labor criminalizes forced labor. It is illegal to use threats or force, actual force, or otherwise compel a person to work against their will. It is also illegal to knowingly benefit from a person’s forced labor by participating in a venture while aware of or recklessly disregarding that it utilizes forced labor. 
  • Slavery or Involuntary Servitude prohibits enticing a person into slavery, selling, detaining, or transporting a person for slavery.  
  • Trafficking provisions provide that it is illegal to “knowingly recruit, harbor, transport, or obtain by any means, any person for labor or services in violation of this law. 

See the law for more information.

 The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). 

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act is a U.S. federal law designed to combat human trafficking and rehabilitate victims. It defines multiple types of trafficking: commercial sex acts, debt bondage, involuntary servitude, slavery, and peonage. Each of these involve exploiting a victim to benefit from them, most commonly from their labor or sexual acts. See the law for more information.

 Most formal protections the TVPA introduces are aimed at helping immigrant or foreign victims who were trafficked in the U.S. or transported to the U.S. due to trafficking. These include nonimmigrant statuses that allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. and work, at least temporarily. The T Visa and Continued Presence are the primary options.

The TVPA authorizes the U.S. Government to strengthen efforts to prosecute traffickers including: 

  • Creating a series of new crimes on trafficking, forced labor, and document servitude that supplemented existing limited crimes related to modern slavery and involuntary servitude; and
  • Recognizing that modern slavery takes place in the context of force, fraud, or coercion

 See the law for more information.

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 (JVTA)

The JVTA uses fines paid by trafficking offenders to provide restitution to victims. Specifically, the Act allows people who buy sexual services from traffickers to be prosecuted as traffickers themselves. Child pornography producers are also considered human traffickers. See the law for more information.

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014

The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014’s title accurately describes its purpose. The Act modified child welfare laws to provide more extensive protections to children who are victims of or at risk of sex trafficking. It required states to incorporate policies into foster care and adoption assistance to identify and document a child’s potential experience with sex trafficking. The Act also imposed reporting requirements, including mandated reporting of children in foster care who were victims of sex trafficking and of runaway foster children.

The Mann Act of 1910  

The Mann Act was amended multiple times and today makes it a felony to transport a person across state lines with the intent to have them engage in prostitution or any criminal sexual activity. See the law for more information.

Yes. It may sound odd that labor trafficking is subject to anti-discrimination laws, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission subjects traffickers to civil penalties in addition to, or in lieu of, criminal convictions in certain situations. Labor trafficking victims are often targeted by predatory employers who perceive them as vulnerable for characteristics such as their immigration status or if they have an intellectual disability. Federal laws prohibit employment or workplace discrimination on the bases of race, sex, nationality, age, or disability.

People who are exploited for their labor by an employer because they fall into one of these categories may seek compensation in civil court regardless of whether their trafficker is charged criminally. In situations that do not arise to the level of trafficking, an employee may still have a claim for sexual harassment or workplace discrimination. Visit our page on employment discrimination to learn more about the applicable laws and how to file a claim. Contact a lawyer if you believe you have a claim.

Resources are available to report suspected human trafficking. Do not hesitate to call 911 in emergency situations. For non-emergent reports, call the Trafficking Hotline or contact one of the other options below. 

  • The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) has a 24/7 national hotline accessible to 200 languages. 
  • The Department of Labor addresses trafficking involving fraud in Department of Labor programs. 
  • Trafficking victims are legally protected from employment discrimination and may contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to learn how to file a charge.
U.S. citizen trafficking victims within the U.S. have access to federal, state, and local programs to help trafficking victims with finances, legal action, health, and more. Foreign nationals may also apply nonimmigrant status, explained further here. The Domestic Victims of Human Trafficking (DVHT) grant program offers resources for victims and enables local organizations. 

The National Trafficking Victim Assistance Program (TVAP) helps victims with case management and offers services such as foster care and financial assistance.  

Homeless children or children who run from home are vulnerable on their own and susceptible to traffickers. Two resources dedicated to helping these children are the Runaway and Homeless Youth Training and Technical Assistance Center (RHYTTAC) and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). 

Immigrant victims and their families can apply for a Temporary Visa, or T Visa, to stay in the U.S. for up to four years. With this nonimmigrant status, the victim can access federal and state programs and become authorized to work in the U.S. with an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). Qualifying T nonimmigrants can apply for a Green Card to become a legal permanent resident in the U.S. 

Continued Presence (CP) is another type of nonimmigrant status. This allows certain trafficking victims to stay in the U.S. for one year and seek an EAD to legally work in the country. This is only available to victims of extreme trafficking situations who may be a witness to offer information for an investigation into or prosecution of traffickers.

The United Nations’ Trafficking Protocol is relevant to human trafficking victims outside of the U.S. or who are U.S. citizens who were transported to another country.

Violations of the law can result in fines and/or imprisonment for the offenders. Many of the statute’s provisions are punishable by fines and up to 20 years imprisonment. The guidelines are the same for offenders who interfere with enforcement of these laws. The punishment can extend up to a life sentence if the committing the given offense also involved attempted or successful kidnapping, sexual abuse, or killing of the victim. The following actions are all subject to these same punishments.

  • Peonage, or “debt servitude”
  • Holding or selling a person for involuntary servitude
  • Providing, obtaining, or knowingly benefitting from and engaging in forced labor
  • Trafficking a person for peonage, involuntary servitude, or forced labor – including harboring, transporting, recruiting, providing, or benefitting from them 

Depending on the offender’s involvement, child sex trafficking is punishable by fines and imprisonment ranging from 10 years to life. Other provisions vary from one another, but many impose fines and imprisonment. For example, obstructing investigations of or destroying a person’s immigration documents is punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment, and voluntarily working on a ship used for slave trade is limited to two years. 

Civil Remedies

Trafficking victims may file a lawsuit against their offenders in an appropriate court. Civil remedies vary by court. However, victims are at least entitled to restitution. Courts are required to order restitution for victims in addition to any civil or criminal penalties. This means the court must order the trafficker to compensate the victim for any financial losses they suffered due to being trafficked. This includes lost wages from being unable to work and the value of any property the victim forfeited while trafficked. 

Lawsuits must be filed within the statute of limitations. Victims can file suit within 10 years of the crime or, if the victim was a minor when trafficked, within 10 years of turning 18 years old. In certain cases, a state’s attorney general may file a civil suit on behalf of the state’s residents against anyone who engages in child sex trafficking in violation of the law. The state attorney general may do so if they reasonably believe the offender threatens or negatively affects the state’s residents. 

See the law for more information.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.