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Know the Story Not the Signs

Say you notice something in an airport, a busy restaurant, or a gas station – a look, an interaction, someone looking disheveled or scared – and something about it just seems wrong or off somehow.

Maybe you’ve attended a training at school or work, or perhaps you’ve seen a poster at a rest stop about the potential “signs” of human trafficking. So now you feel equipped to figure out what is going on and the next steps that need to be taken to get help, right? 

Well, not exactly. 

The truth is, in most human trafficking situations, there are unlikely to be visible “signs” or “indicators” that trafficking is happening – unless you know something else about the situation – unless you know the story. 

Without knowing the story, “signs” of human trafficking can lead to judgments formulated from unconscious bias or harmful stereotypes. They can also lead to situations where a person in a trafficking situation is actually put in a dangerous position by a well-meaning stranger. 

That’s why we are asking people to learn the story of human trafficking – by learning how trafficking really happens and listening to victims and survivors. 

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The real story of trafficking is about vulnerability. It’s the story of how traffickers find what a person wants or needs most in the world and gives it to them. Sometimes it’s love, sometimes it’s simply the money to survive another day. 

It’s a story you can’t read without some degree of context and proximity. Context meaning that you understand the dynamics of the situation or relationship you’re witnessing, and proximity meaning that you have some degree of relationship with someone involved. 

For example, teachers who understand trafficking are in a good position to ask questions if they notice a student’s grades slipping or behavior changing dramatically. Similarly, doctors, nurses, and medical professionals who understand trafficking are able to gain context and proximity by knowing what questions to ask and how to ask them so that the patient feels comfortable sharing.

But it’s not only professionals. Let’s say you offer someone a drink who is mowing your lawn and they say no thank you because they’re not allowed to take breaks. In this situation, you are close enough to that situation to be concerned. 

The key is learning to pay attention to the people around you, especially those with preexisting vulnerability or risk factors of human trafficking. 

Poverty, recent immigration, a history of trauma and abuse – these are all risk factors of sex trafficking and labor trafficking. The way someone looks and how they’re dressed are not. 

We have to stop looking for “signs” of trafficking and instead start listening to survivors to understand what’s really happening. This means focusing on identifying people or groups in our communities who may struggling to get by – and if they don’t get help, may be vulnerable to trafficking.

Ready to learn more? Take our Human Trafficking 101 – a free virtual training where you can learn how to protect your friends and family by learning how trafficking really works.

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