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Human Trafficking Does Not Happen in a Vacuum

As we enter 2021, our country is facing multiple unprecedented crises: a global health pandemic, staggering unemployment rates, systemic racial and economic inequities and a growing mistrust in public institutions.  

This January, Human Trafficking Awareness Month, Polaris and United Way are reflecting on how these compounding crises are having a profound impact on human trafficking across the United States.

What we have long understood, but are seeing now more clearly than ever, is that human trafficking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is the end result of a range of other persistent injustices and inequities in our society and our economy.  

Data shows that the vast majority of trafficking victims identified in the United States are people who have historically faced discrimination and its political, social and economic consequences: People of color, indigenous communities, immigrants and people who identify as LGBTQ+ are disproportionately victimized. People living in poverty, or foster care, or are struggling with addiction, trauma, abuse or unstable housing, are all at comparatively higher risk for trafficking.  

What ties all these disparate groups of people and experiences together is that there is something they need, sometimes desperately. Survivors have taught us that traffickers expertly seek out people whose specific need they can fill – or pretend to fill. Sometimes they dangle material support – a good job, a safe place to stay, drugs. Often what they offer is less tangible but just as vital – the illusion of love, belonging, safety or acceptance.   

Preventing human trafficking at the scale of the problem means changing the underlying systems – the inequities and injustices we mentioned above – that make people vulnerable and therefore make trafficking possible. It requires moving beyond solutions that rely entirely on law enforcement. Prosecuting traffickers and seeking justice for survivors is vital, but it is not enough in and of itself to end trafficking. 

The laws and systems that need changing are not necessarily related to criminal justice. They are not necessarily specific to trafficking. They are eviction moratoria that keep people from being thrown out of their homes in the midst of a pandemic and the ensuing economic upheaval. They are changes to the foster care system to better protect youth who are aging out, and to the immigration system so that people are not so easily controlled by threats of deportation.  They are public procurement rules to ensure taxpayer funds for landscaping and construction do not contribute to forced labor and they are systems that ensure everyone can earn a living wage – a real living wage. 

We also must never forget the important work of ensuring survivors can find safety, and the supports and opportunities they deserve to rebuild their lives. This work is nowhere near done and must continue to be prioritized with survivors at the helm.   

For more than a decade, Polaris has operated the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline and that work has allowed us to build the largest known data set on trafficking in the United States. What we have learned from that data and from survivors informs our 10-year strategy, which is aimed at dismantling, repairing, in some cases upending, the systems where we think the biggest change can be made to help the greatest number. We are working to leverage the reach and power of financial systems to disrupt trafficking, build power for migrant workers in the system of recruiting workers for U.S. farms, and expanding the services available to vulnerable people to prevent sex trafficking before it happens. 

For more than 125 years, United Way has evolved to meet the needs of the times. United Way advances the common good in communities across the world. Our credo is to fight for the health, education and financial stability of every person in every community.  The Center on Human Trafficking & Slavery does this by strengthening and expanding programs and services that support and protect our most vulnerable populations. Learn more here

That is why, this January, Polaris and United Way are joining forces to say:

  • Fighting racism is fighting human trafficking. 
  • Upholding LGBTQ+ equality is fighting human trafficking. 
  • Providing safe and affordable housing is fighting human trafficking.  
  • Protecting workers rights is fighting human trafficking. 

The best defenses against human trafficking are healthy families and strong communities. Because human trafficking doesn’t happen in a vacuum, our response can’t either. As we embark on a new year, join us in the fight to dismantle the systems that allow human trafficking to exist in the first place. Click here to share graphics on social media.

This blog post is co-authored by: 

Mara Vanderslice Kelly, Executive Director of the United Way Center on Human Trafficking & Slavery

Catherine Chen, Chief Executive Officer, Polaris

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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.