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The Fight Against Human Trafficking

Date Published
June 9, 2019

Sidebar to the article Crime Victim Awareness and Assistance Through the Decades by Stacy Lee.

Human trafficking continues to be a research priority for NIJ; however, many challenges are involved. For example, victims are highly vulnerable and largely hidden from the public, which makes it particularly difficult to obtain accurate statistics on the amount of people trafficked per year.

The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation.”[1] On October 28, 2000, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA)[2] became the first comprehensive federal law to address the issue and provided a three-pronged approach: prevention, protection, and prosecution. On November 15, 2000, the United Nations General Assembly passed the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.[3]

“The passage of the TVPA launched trafficking in the spotlight,” said Amy Leffler, a social science analyst who manages NIJ’s Human Trafficking Portfolio. “Since that time, NIJ has developed a robust trafficking research portfolio, which continues to focus on five core areas of knowledge: the nature and extent of trafficking; identifying and investigating traffickers; prosecuting traffickers; services for trafficking victims; and reduction in demand for trafficking.”

Over the years, NIJ-funded research has revealed many important details about both labor and sex trafficking, which has helped guide policy and practice throughout the country. For example, an official White House statement on the passage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA) cited a 2014 NIJ-funded study by the Urban Institute. The study reported that the internet introduced new markets for sex work and sex trafficking advertisement and recruitment, and that persons seeking to commit a crime consider pimping to involve less risk than other crimes, such as drug trafficking. According to the study, pimps move in circuits among other cities with underground commercial sex economies and use social networks to gain information and arrange transport. They also rely on people already under their control to recruit others for sex work.[4]

“This groundbreaking study not only provided the first scientifically rigorous estimates for the revenue generated in the underground commercial sex economy, but also included rich qualitative analysis of trafficking operations, law enforcement perceptions and response, and victimization,” Leffler said.

Understanding more about the victims of trafficking is important as we strive to better identify this population. A 2011 NIJ-funded study by the Urban Institute found that most labor trafficking victims were recruited to come to the United States from within their home country, which was usually in Latin America or Asia. The study found that 71% of the victims surveyed came to the United States legally on a temporary visa. However, by the time they escaped their labor trafficking situation and pursued help from a service provider, 69% had lapsed visas. The employers often used immigration status as a threat to control their victims along with other forms of force, fraud, and coercion. Labor trafficking occurred in many industries, the most common being agriculture, domestic service, and hospitality.[5]

Also in 2011, the Vera Institute of Justice used NIJ funding to develop, test, and validate a screening tool for victims of human trafficking. It determined that 87% of the screening tool questions identified human trafficking victimization and 53% of the 180 screening question respondents were human trafficking victims. The final report indicated that the screening tool has the potential to help not only victim service providers but also investigators and prosecutors of human trafficking cases.[6]

Evaluation of victim services is important for gauging proper protection and prevention of such crimes. In 2009, NIJ awarded a grant to RTI International to evaluate three programs funded by the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) that serve victims of sex and labor trafficking who are under age 18. The study found that human trafficking victims are diverse and, although these programs did relate to some trafficked youth, they did not meet the needs of others. It ultimately determined that “OVC-funded programs offered unique expertise in trauma and resiliency, understanding of street economies, and the ability to align themselves with young people in a way that formal agencies rarely could.”[7]

To gain a holistic understanding of human trafficking, we must understand the demand. A 2008 NIJ-funded study by Abt Associates examined criminal justice strategies and collaborative programs around the country that decrease the demand for commercial sex. As a result of the study, the website DemandForum.net was launched in 2012. The website details successful tactics used around the country to deter men from buying sex and offers a guide for cities, counties, and practitioners to begin, improve, and maintain anti-demand initiatives.[8]

NIJ-funded research[9] has shown that human trafficking can happen anywhere in the United States; it does not occur only in large cities. There is a common misconception that human trafficking victims are mostly brought to the United States from other countries; however, many victims are U.S. citizens. Leffler stated that NIJ remains committed to research that will develop the building blocks needed to better understand sex and labor trafficking and the unique challenges that affect victims, law enforcement, and the judicial system, and also to dispel misconceptions and provide clarity to this complicated crime.

Date Published: June 9, 2019