Preventing Human Trafficking
By Alicia Peters | January 25, 2023
Established by presidential decree in 2010, January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month. In name at least, preventing human trafficking is part of the federal government’s 3 P’s paradigm to address human trafficking through prosecution, protection, and prevention. While the name would suggest the 3P’s are equally important methods in the fight against trafficking, in reality the order reflects an implicit level of prioritization. Since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000), the U.S. response has focused overwhelmingly on the first P through a criminal justice response, with victim protection playing a secondary role in the government’s strategy. Prevention has never been a funding priority nor a central pillar in the response, making its titular role in this month’s campaign incongruous with the realities of U.S. policy.
In line with the criminal justice focus, President Biden’s ’FY 2021 budget allocated $160 million to human trafficking investigations and prosecution efforts through the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. An additional $40 million was designated to fund the Enhanced Collaborative Model Task Force to Combat Human Trafficking program, which brings together state and local law enforcement and victim service partners. $87 million was earmarked for victim services funded through the Department of Justice and another $28 million was directed toward the Department of Health and Human Services to provide case management services and benefits for victims of trafficking along with support for the Human Trafficking Data Collection Project. The remaining funds – in the single digit millions – are allocated to prevention.
Most prevention funding is allocated towards public outreach and awareness campaigns. Outreach is vital to connecting potential survivors with resources, but it is a reactive approach that depends on reaching individuals after they have been harmed.
To date almost no U.S. government funds have gone towards primary prevention. Primary prevention is proactive and seeks to decrease vulnerability before trafficking occurs.
Intervention versus Prevention
What criminal justice, victim services, and outreach strategies all have in common is that they focus on intervention as opposed to prevention of human trafficking. Intervention refers to efforts to arrest traffickers and sex buyers, remove survivors from coercive living conditions, and victim services. Law enforcement operations may be successful in removing individuals and increasing the number of prosecutions. However, the interventionist model has resulted in a stratified and inconsistent response from law enforcement. Those from BIPOC, immigrant, and LGBTQIA+ communities or trafficked into other labor sectors are often overlooked, or worse harmed by antitrafficking policies.
The focus on interventionist, criminal justice solutions in state and federal policy fails to address the conditions that contribute to human trafficking. As I oft heard repeated by advocates and law enforcement officers alike during my most recent ethnographic research, “You can’t arrest your way out of trafficking.” It is not possible to end trafficking without ending the intersectional oppressions that create vulnerability.
Public Health Approach to Trafficking
The goal is to prevent human trafficking by addressing structural violence. Structural violence includes how the effects of racism and income inequality accumulate over time, increasing the risk that a person will be trafficked. The same structural conditions also increase the likelihood of perpetrating trafficking, as those charged with trafficking often come from the same communities as survivors. Reducing structural vulnerability at large also lessens the tendency to see exploiting others as a path to success.
My research with survivors revealed the social determinants that arise before, during, and after trafficking. The vast majority were poor, experienced generational trauma, many were medically uninsured, sexually stigmatized on account of participation in commercial sex, more than half had histories of incarceration, and almost all of them lived with substance use disorder. What became clear in this research was that the structural problems that were present before trafficking persisted during and after the period of trafficking. One survivor explained how the challenges of withdrawal symptoms made it difficult for her to leave. As she put it, “Once your addiction comes into it … [you may want] to leave but you don’t want to leave because you’re going to get sick. It’s just like a really bad cycle.”
In interviews, survivors, service providers, and law enforcement expressed remarkable agreement about the biggest challenges facing trafficking survivors. These challenges include lack of housing, treatment for substance use disorder, access to wraparound health care and transportation, and economic alternatives.
As one program director noted, “the issues that have made [survivors] vulnerable to trafficking, like poverty, intergenerational violence, mental health, substance use … there is very little infrastructure or resources to help them resolve those issues.” Another trafficking advocate emphasized, “If you’re looking at it as a problem of poverty …you would never say, ‘This is a law enforcement-based problem, and we should send law enforcement in to solve it.’”
Prioritizing Prevention of Human Trafficking
The Biden Administration’s recently released National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking has placed a greater emphasis on prevention. The plan is novel in its comprehensive governmental approach that includes specific priority action steps for each of the 3 P’s. Notably, the plan indicated that advancing gender and racial equity, focusing on prevention of labor trafficking in global supply chains, and promoting safe, orderly, and humane migration are essential to the effort to combat trafficking. Yet wording within the plan is vague and emphasizes “reviewing” and “monitoring” already well documented deficiencies. Acknowledging these issues is an important first step, but ambitious initiatives need to be funded in future budget cycles to prioritize prevention.
An expanded approach to prevention should incorporate interventions to disrupt patterns of exploitation before trafficking occurs and address factors that make survivors vulnerable to re-trafficking. A prevention-focused approach would:
- Expand affordable housing. Research has demonstrated a strong link between housing instability and trafficking.
- Increase safe housing options for survivors. A Housing-First model allows survivors the chance to obtain stable housing without preconditions such as sobriety or employment.
- Expand access to comprehensive, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorder. Such an approach would provide a full continuum of treatment and recovery services, integrate care for co-occurring physical and mental health conditions, and connect people with other social services.
- Provide expanded support services for at-risk, homeless, and LGBTQIA+ youth. Research shows that youth report practical needs including housing and job preparation and specialized needs like trauma-informed counseling and harm reduction programs.
- Address inequities and vulnerability in child protective services. Raising the age that youth “age out” of the foster care system and combatting abuse and violence within the system could decrease the risk of trafficking.
- Implement immigration reform to address the demand for cheap labor and to make temporary guestworker programs safer.
- Include impacted communities—trafficking survivors and people in the sex trades—in designing the policy response.
The best approach to preventing trafficking may lie in policies that seem to be quite removed from the crime of trafficking.
Expanding social welfare support, ensuring access to safe and affordable housing, reducing violence in families and the foster care system, and advancing safe migration would mean fewer individuals trafficked in the first place. Prevention can and should move to the center of federal and state responses to human trafficking.
Alicia Peters is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of New England.
Photo credit: “President Trump Holds a Roundtable on Human Trafficking” by The White House is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.