The Shocking Scope of Human Trafficking

November 15, 2013
 Social scientists estimate that, at any given time, 27 million women, men and children are victims of human trafficking.

Social scientists estimate that, at any given time, 27 million women, men, and children are victims of human trafficking.


Ingrid Cruz dreamed of being a teacher. A graduate of a prestigious university in the Philippines, she believed Lourdes Navarro wanted to help her get a job in the United States. In fact, Navarro was working with school administrators in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, to secure visas for Cruz and many other teachers, but Navarro charged them each approximately $16,000 for the service. Once in America, Navarro forced the teachers to sign over 10 percent of their salaries.

“We were thinking we had no choice,” Cruz told the Boston Globe. The teachers lived together in an apartment complex and paid Navarro rents well over market value. They aren’t alone. According to the Globe, documented cases of teacher trafficking have occurred in Baltimore and El Paso, Texas, as well.

Across the ocean in Ghana, Natalia’s parents promised her the chance to learn English and get an education in the United States, a dream come true for this 13-year-old. But after she arrived, her host father began to abuse her and forced her to work as a maid and a nanny for no pay, never allowing her to leave the house, let alone enroll in school. Natalia is just one of many human trafficking survivors profiled on the website of the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking organization.

The stories of trafficking are so compelling often because they are so shocking, grim reminders of the horrors lurking behind the American dream. Indeed, although the United States proudly calls itself the home of the free, the Polaris Project estimates that at least 100,000 children are engaged in the sex trade here each year. That number doesn’t include adults, and it doesn’t include anyone, like Cruz, trapped in a forced or exploitative labor situation.

Human beings are still trafficked throughout the world. As globalization erases the borders between countries, the challenges of stopping the flood of human exploitation continue to multiply. Human trafficking has grown to be one of the largest organized criminal activities in the world, second only to drug trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, 40,000 victims were identified worldwide in 2012, but social scientists estimate that 27 million women, men, and children are victims at any given time.

But what, exactly, is human trafficking? How did it get to be such a prominent problem? And, most important, how can we end it?

The major anti-trafficking legislation in the United States, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, defines human trafficking as

  • sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or
  • the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

Fall 2013 AAUW Outlook magazine cover art

Read more from
AAUW Outlook Magazine

Get in-depth coverage of the most pressing issues facing women today.

In other words, “Human trafficking is a violation of human rights where an individual is forced or tricked into work and unable to leave for any number of reasons,” says Tiffany Williams, advocacy director at the Institute for Policy Studies Break the Chain Campaign. It’s important to note that the definition rests on force and coercion, not movement across borders. Although many victims do travel or are removed from their home countries, a person can be trafficked within her or his own community.

As the profile of trafficking has risen over the past few years, many groups, including AAUW, have begun working to end it within their communities and, by extension, worldwide. Dozens of anti-trafficking organizations now exist, and the United Nations is embarking on major initiatives to reduce the vulnerability of potential victims and the demand for exploitation through several agencies.

But the challenges to ending trafficking are many. First — and foremost, according to the State Department — it’s difficult to identify victims. Part of the problem, says Williams, is that there are stereotypes about who can be a victim — typically young girls tricked into sex slavery — when in reality, “human trafficking can occur within any age, gender, occupation, or education level.” She cites Cruz’s case to support her point.

We have to ask ourselves, says Williams, “Why do people continue to be vulnerable? What structural problems do we have as a society that allows people to slip through the cracks?” These root problems make it easy for traffickers to evade arrest and to confuse potential allies. For example, although trafficking victims don’t have to be transported, many are, which raises immigration questions. And victims engage in illegal activities—prostitution, working without proper authorization or documentation — that can throw off police or immigration officials who lack proper training.

Williams points to tensions within the anti-trafficking movement that are also hampering progress. “There is a divide between the human rights approach, which is more about allying with survivors, understanding the environment that led them to this place, versus the victim-saving approach, which looks at swift and immediate rescue as the primary goal.”

The human rights model is reflected in the U.S. laws that deal with trafficking, like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the Violence Against Women Act, which included a trafficking provision in its most recent reauthorization. Anne Hedgepeth, AAUW’s government relations manager, also cites the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign and the Department of Justice’s enforcement initiatives as examples of the federal government’s commitment to effectively ending human trafficking.

human trafficking girl window

“Human trafficking can occur within any age, gender, occupation, or education level.”
— Tiffany Williams, advocacy director for Break the Chain

AAUW added support for “national and international policies against human trafficking” to our member-approved Public Policy Program in 2011. “AAUW branches and states had begun to identify human trafficking as an issue that was impacting their communities. Adding it to the Public Policy Program means that we can really turn our attention to doing work in that area,” says Hedgepeth.

Williams encourages AAUW members and branches to get involved in the fight against trafficking. “We need allies who have the resources and brainpower to break us out of the Band-Aid approach,” she says. “Reflect on the complex causes, on how we can respect autonomy and still provide services, and where our voices can make the most impact when it comes to effective prevention.” Many AAUW branches and states are doing just that. Volunteers in Michigan, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are fighting trafficking through Impact Grants (see sidebar), and other branches are taking action in their communities.

As for Ingrid Cruz and Natalia, both stories have happy endings. Natalia escaped and found help at a local hospital from a nurse who had been properly trained in trafficking-victim identification and care. According to the Polaris Project, Natalia is finally enrolled in school and hopes to become a nurse herself.

Cruz and her fellow teachers, with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Federation of Teachers, sued Navarro and won a $4.5 million verdict on their claims of exploitative business practices. The trafficking claims against Navarro, however, were dismissed.

Elizabeth Bolton By:   |   November 15, 2013

1 Comment

Join the Conversation

You must be logged in to post a comment.