Race and Human Trafficking in the U.S.: Unclear but Undeniable

Today is Human Trafficking Awareness Day and RH Reality Check is featuring a series in collaboration with Race Talk to pay respect to those who’ve experienced this severe human rights abuse.

The series, edited by Juhu Thukral, includes a look back at the history of anti-trafficking efforts and where they have led us, and thinking about the most effective path forward to prevent others from being trafficked.

As Juhu writes in her introduction to the series:

In order to think proactively about solutions to the problem of human trafficking, it is crucial to answer the most basic question of all: What exactly is trafficking in persons? Experts will weigh in with their answers and their ideas for future efforts, including some of the leading voices, thinkers, and practitioners on the issue of trafficking in persons. They include lawyers who represent trafficked persons on a daily basis, advocates who have pushed forward innovative policies over the last decade and more, and activists who have incorporated anti-trafficking issues into their intersecting fields.

I watch and listen to the advocacy of human trafficking at rallies, on web sites, in government reports and NGO reports. The research and statistics on human trafficking in America are ambiguous, especially in relation to race and ethnicity.  We need to explicitly recognize the connections between trafficking, poverty, migration, gender, racism and racial discrimination to adequately battle and destroy human trafficking in the U.S.

Trafficking persons is inherently discriminatory.  Since an overwhelming majority of trafficked persons are women, trafficking in most circles is usually considered a gender issue, especially in the United States (majority of trafficking in the U.S. is sex trafficking).  In the U.S., most state human trafficking laws explicitly and directly address sexual exploitation, ignoring or vaguely covering other types of trafficking (myths of trafficking).

However, a link that is rarely discussed in open forums about human trafficking is racial discrimination.  A question that I don’t hear enough is, “Does race and ethnicity contribute to the likelihood of people becoming victims of trafficking?”  I say, “Yes.”  Furthermore, I believe that not only does race and ethnicity constitute a risk factor for trafficking, it may also determine the treatment those victims’ experience.

The Polaris Project, who does outstanding work in combating human trafficking, stated the majority of trafficked persons come from vulnerable populations, including undocumented migrants, runaways and at-risk youth, oppressed or marginalized groups, and the poor; specifically because they are easiest to recruit and control.  In the U.S., statistically speaking, people of color more than fit this criterion.

Available Statistics by Race

A large majority of trafficked persons in the U.S. for the purposes of labor and sexual exploitation are people of color. Domestically, 50 percent of trafficked victims are children and an overwhelmingly are girls, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Most foreign nationals are women, children and men from Mexico and East Asia, as well as from South Asia, Central America, Africa, and Europe, about 17,500 each year, according to statistics complied by Polaris Project and 2009 TIP report.

Seventy-seven percent of victims in alleged human trafficking incidents reported in the U.S. were people of color, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics Report.  An example of BJS’s ambiguity is that 747 out of 1,442 reported incidents recorded no racial or ethnic origin.

Racism is deeply embedded in human trafficking and must be racially inclusive and explicitly included in its literature, statistics and advocacy.  To combat this modern-day slavery, the trafficking cycle should recognize explicitly the connections between trafficking, migration, poverty, racism, gender and racial discrimination.

We need to urge and support our NGOs, national and state governments to adequately report trafficking incidents.  It is important to know the origin of the victims and the suspected traffickers, race and ethnic backgrounds to better understand the vulnerabilities and how traffickers exploit opportunities.

I am advocating that we remove and uncover the ambiguity of the characteristics of trafficked persons and the traffickers and be explicit about who they are and what populations in America are most affected so we can make specific and measurable progress.  The notion that anyone can be a victim of human trafficking is true, however, the fact that the majority of victims are people of color should not be undermined or understated.

Recent human trafficking reports in the U.S.:

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  • sarahmae

    Thank you so much for this important perspetive on the anti-slavery/anti-human trafficking movement. I was recently at a conference on the issue, and was disheartened that the majority of attendees were not only white, but that only one speaker mentioned race in the historical perspective of slavery (as in – there has been slavery since America existed, and it has predominately been of people of color, not a discussion of race still embedded in the issue). I think part of the difficulty is the framing – advocates are framing this issue as an issue where “everyone is at risk,” and while lots of white people become enslaved, many MANY more people of color become enslaved.

    I’m interested that you believe race is a risk factor for human trafficking, and hadn’t considered that before. The Kevin Bales (a white man) research has found that poverty, lack of enforcement of laws, and corruption of police are the correlates to human trafficking (and the indicators break down even more specifically than that in his research). I have thought that, even in the U.S., these factors are present more in communities of color (due to systemic racism), and create an environment where people of color are more vulerable, due to that very real and continued racism. But I had been thinking race correlated with those, not the other way around.

    Do you think, then, that these factors are correlates with the communities where people of color around the world live, and that the real issue is racism and colonialism, which have created this problem in these communities and countries? I hope that you have time to respond because I’m very interested in your perspective.

    I am interested as a white woman to call white abolitionists to see the issue of race embedded in slavery (which is in front of our faces, but not talked much about), and work with other anti-racist abolitionists to find ways to do this effectively.

    Thank you so much for this thought-provoking and much needed comment. And thanks to Race-Talk/Kirwan on the much-needed series!


    Sarah Eisele-Dyrli

    No More Slavery | http://nomoreslaveryCT.com