Trafficking from a Racial Justice Advocate’s Point of View

January 11th was Human Trafficking Awareness Day and RH Reality Check continues featuring a series on trafficking 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 a long-time racial justice advocate, I am often thinking of the intersections between my work and that of related movements. We all know that race, gender, class, and immigration status do not operate in a vacuum, but at times it can be difficult to find ways to incorporate even more nuanced perspectives into our day-to-day work in a practical way. And there is the challenge of learning how to talk about different issues, when addressing the nuances can sometimes make our agendas appear even more complex than they are. This was one of the issues I faced a few years ago, when I was initially introduced to the issue of trafficking in persons.

When I first learned about trafficking, I was horrified by the stories I heard. But as I learned more about the issue and got beyond some of the cursory dialogue, I was struck by the way perspectives on race run through the issue as an important undercurrent. I also noticed that race is rarely addressed directly in this arena.

The reality is, there are all kinds of racial justice implications central in trafficking situations, beginning with the comparisons to the history of slavery in the United States. More recently, traffickers thrived in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In one class action lawsuit, over 500 Indian men were lured to the United States to work in shipyards after Hurricane Katrina through the federal government’s H-2B guest worker program. They arrived in the Gulf region to find themselves in indentured servitude. I recently spoke to a woman who with many others had similarly been misled into coming to the United States post-Katrina with the promise of a good paying job. It is striking that while the government struggled (and still does) to facilitate the return of residents—primarily low-income African Americans—displaced by Hurricane Katrina, traffickers moved to fill the gap with low-income women and people of color brought from their countries to be exploited. The setting is apt for a discussion on the link between trafficking, economic inequality, immigration policy, and discrimination; all of which must be considered to effectively tackle trafficking.

Trafficking is enabled by economic inequality with people trafficked largely from poor or developing countries to destination countries of greater wealth. Most of these poor origin countries happen to have populations that are overwhelming people of color, and within countries, the most vulnerable—poor women and children—are targeted. Be it from Southeast Asia or Mexico to the United States, or Africa to Europe or the Middle East, the pattern is the same. Poverty renders people in desperate situations susceptible to taking risky chances in search of better life opportunities. Most people who are lured into a trafficking situation are already interested in emigrating to find better live opportunities. Others are coerced. The Durban Plan of Action is the document that was adopted by consensus at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR), and it is one of the most important frameworks to date for combating racism and racial discrimination. The Plan of Action recognized the role of economic inequality and called for global cooperation in addressing the root causes of trafficking, specifically mentioning poverty, underdevelopment, and lack of equal opportunity. It recognized that these root causes are sometimes the result of discriminatory practices that make people, particularly women and children, vulnerable to trafficking.

Immigration, employment, and criminal justice policies that have a disproportionate negative effect on people of color also contribute to the problem of trafficking. Once a person is trafficked, they often lack proper documentation and are at risk of deportation. In fact, many traffickers confiscate travel and/or work documents from their victims or threaten them with deportation or imprisonment. In the case of trafficking into sex work, the fact that prostitution is criminalized further drives trafficked persons underground. As a result, victims of trafficking are often reluctant to present themselves to the authorities for fear of being arrested and/or deported. To be clear, they are also afraid of retaliation from the traffickers.

Sadly, discriminatory attitudes and racial bias also play a role which might explain the brazen attitude of traffickers. I am reminded of a television show that had two actors pretending to be a couple in a violent argument. Bystanders who witnessed a provocatively dressed woman being pushed around by a man were unlikely to intervene on her behalf, and when she was black, some onlookers actually openly judged her. Not surprisingly, police are more likely to arrest Black women than white women at a domestic violence incident because of stereotypes of Black women being overly aggressive.

One New York City study found that more than70 per cent of domestic violence cases when both partners are arrested involved people of color.  Often trafficked persons operate in the open in our midst, but because of subtle and overt racial bias, we fail to recognize victims. When we do recognize the victim, we don’t always accord him or her the same justice.

Many of the contributing factors to trafficking are seemingly intractable. Economic inequality appears to be growing, not decreasing. Immigration policy is becoming increasingly irrational and punitive, and has exacerbated racial bias and xenophobia. While we acknowledge that these root causes will not be addressed in the short term, they should inform and shape trafficking policy. Trafficking is so abhorrent and naturally elicits emotional responses, sometimes overriding thoughtful policy. Unfortunately, emotion does not always produce good policy. Good policy on trafficking must be consistent with human rights principles and center on respecting the inherent dignity and agency of victims.

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  • 2ephesians8

    Ejim, thank you for addressing the issue of human trafficking. while I find your arguements regarding race as a factor somewhat compeling I am  not entirely convinced it has much to do with the issue. The people who commit this crime are opportunistic and will prey on any person available to them. They are known to kidnap and blackmail as well as take advantage of those who are in poverty for whatever reason. All races experience poverty the world over. Asian, white, hispanic, negro, arab, you name it. unscrupulous people will sell their own children, friends, and relatives into slavery for profit. While I respect your view, and there is certainly some validity to it, especially in the western world, I think essentially we need to set aside any mention of race in this issue. It is a raceless crime against all humanity and no one is exempt. Greed is color-blind. Let us stand together and agree that this must be stopped, and stopped now. -Ann

  • arekushieru

    Disagree.  Since there are different levels of the impoverished and, generally, these are divided along lines of race. 

    These ‘unscrupulous’ people are probably just parents trying to make a living to provide a good (perhaps new) life for any other children they may have.  While I disagree with their methods, I don’t think they can be described as unscrupulous.

  • sarahmae


    If this subject interests you, you should read the fascinating book “A Crime So Monstrous” by E. Benjamin Skinner. The “unscrupulous” people are actually organized crime who make an estimated $36 BILLION a year. I’ve been reading a story (in aforementioned book) about a man connected with the largest crime family in Romania who used to lure young women into slavery, but is now in prison. It’s true that some families “sell” their children, but th UN has found that 54% of the traffickers are strangers to the victims. Family members and guardians do sometimes traffic people as well. also has information about people who are trafficked and how they are trafficked.

  • sarahmae

    Anne – Over 90% of victims of slavery around the world are from non-industrialized countries, meaning over 90% of the victims are not “white.” Does that make you reconsider that race is a factor? “Only” 10% of victims of trafficking are from Industralized nations, and these obviously include people of color in those nations (and if we had statistics, people of color would be victims at a disproportionate rate). So while white people do become enslaved, can you look at that number and honestly say that race is not a factor?

    It is true that all races experience poverty, and all races can be trafficked (but as I noted to Arekushieru below, family members are not the majority of those that traffic their family members). But people of color (as Arekushieru notes) experience poverty disproportionately, even in the US.

    To set aside race is to be unable to stop the problem. Kevin Bales says three correlates of slavery are poverty, lack of enforcement of laws, and corruption. People in non-white countries and communities, even in the US, experience these problems because of systemic racism and colonialism, and white communities (except those in poverty) are largely not at risk. 

    If I went to my doctor with severe headaches and he put a cast on my arm instead of doing a tests for a brain tumor, I’d get a new doctor. You don’t stop a disease by treating the healthy parts of your body but the sick parts. You also don’t ignore a disease and hope you’ll get better. Saying “everyone” is at risk, and “slavery is equal opportunity” is like that. It means if don’t “treat” (or support) the places where people are trafficked from, (in the US meaning immigrant communities, urban areas with high poverty, etc.) and instead spread our efforts out equally everywhere, we’re complicit in allowing slavery to continue.

    Slavery is a merely the symptom of a disease. That disease is racism and colonialism. Systemic racism is the disease that has bred slavery since European’s first walked on the shores of the US (it has always existed in the US in one form or another. Human trafficking is merely the latest). The majority of slaves in the US have always been people of color, and only until this recent form beginning in the 1980’s or 1990’s have white people become enslaved at higher rates. But slaves are still mostly people of color, and will continue to be until we as white people deal stand with people of color and say we don’t want them to be enslaved anymore. It’s a continuation of the civil rights movement, even though, sadly, most anti-trafficking advocates don’t see this.

    Greed is not color blind. It preys on people who are vulnerable, and we (industralized white countries) have made people of color around the world vulnerable by our own racial biases and ignoring the problems we create.

    Admitting race is a factor in slavery will enable us to be more effective in our efforts to combat slavery.

    If we ignore race as central to slavery, we will never end human trafficking. We can agree that slavery must be stopped, and I will stand with people who don’t agree systemic racism must be addressed, but I will not stand and ignore one of the major factors in why it continues, or else it won’t stop.

    No More Slavery | empowering you to act