Signs Of Human Trafficking Can Be Dangerously Subtle — Here's What To Look For

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Around the world, about 40.3 million people are victims of modern day slavery or human trafficking, according to the International Labour Organization's 2017 estimates. And while the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported that about 23,000 victims were identified in 2018, millions of cases go unnoticed every year. But that doesn't mean efforts are hopeless. Understanding how to identify the signs of human trafficking and report them can help save lives.

Though human trafficking often happens in public spaces, the signs might not immediately register as red flags and aren't always easy to recognize. Dr. David Kyle, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, and expert on human smuggling, says that it’s extremely difficult to identify trafficking victims unless they attempt to communicate with you directly. Still, Kyle says, "with some awareness and willingness to communicate, people may be able to assist victims to safety."

Dr. Mellissa Withers, Ph.D., an associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California's Online Master of Public Health program, tells Bustle, "There's potential for anyone to be able to identify a victim." From teachers, neighbors, and health care providers to truck drivers and flight attendants, she's seen an array of different people come forth to report cases of human trafficking. And you can be one of these people.

If you notice a combination of these nine signs, they could be indicators of human trafficking:


"Branding" Tattoos

Erin Andrews, the executive director of FAIR Girls, an anti-human trafficking organization geared mostly toward women and girls, tells Bustle that human trafficking victims commonly have random but prominent tattoos. She says that these tattoos will often have no apparent personal connection with the individual. According to CNN, they're used as methods of branding, so that pimps can "mark their property" on victims' bodies. These branding tattoos usually come in the form of large letters, often placed on or near the victim's face.


Bruises At Different Stages Of Healing

Nicole O’Banion, the ombudsman for the Attorney General’s Office of Nevada (ranked ninth in the nation for the most human trafficking cases in 2017), tells Bustle that their division encourages people to look out for people with multiple bruises from different points in time. As UNICEF USA points out, victims of human trafficking are more often than not victims of physical abuse. It is partially through this continuous abuse that offenders keep victims of human trafficking subdued. Multiple bruises at different stages of healing can be signs of abuse over a long period of time.


New, Expensive Jewelry

"Traffickers while in the recruitment and grooming process with a potential victim, often shower them with gifts, luxuries the victim couldn't otherwise afford," Andrews explains. This is meant, she says, to give human trafficking victims a false sense of security as though they're being "taken care" of. It can also make them less likely to report their situation.


Someone Seems To Be Coached Or Coaxed Into Saying Things

O'Banion tells Bustle that someone who seems to be coached or coaxed into saying things might be a victim of human trafficking. Time emphasizes this, explaining that victims of human trafficking are often accompanied by others who seem to be in control. In other words, if you notice a person acting unusually timid or submissive, you might want to analyze the situation further.


The Person Seems Hungry Or Dehydrated

According to the Sex Trafficking Fact Sheet by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, starvation is often used as a way of conditioning victims into performing sex acts or labour. Taking away the victim's food and drink until they agree to do what traffickers want makes it even more difficult for that person to fight back.


Consistently Avoiding School Or Work

Though there are plenty of other reasons someone might miss school or work, Andrews says this could be a potential red flag. Furthermore, that person might be reluctant to explain their absence because they received instructions not to. This is especially true if absences become a regular occurrence rather than a one-time occasion. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security along with the U.S. Department of Education released a "Human Trafficking 101 for School Administrators and Staff," noting that unexplained absences or the inability to regularly attend school could be a sign of human trafficking.


Isolation From Family Or Friends

"Modern slavery is enforced through psychological control, misinformation, and threats to victim and loved ones," Kyle says. This psychological control can come in the form of isolating victims from their families and friends. It can be done by coaxing, threats, or even just physically separating someone from those familiar to them. The Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking organization responsible for building the largest public data sets on human trafficking within the United States, reports that traffickers do this in order to make their victims feel more vulnerable, thus making them more dependent.


Rapid Or Dramatic Changes In Mood

Because many victims are regularly subjected to emotional and physical trauma, the Department of Homeland Security cites "sudden or dramatic change in behavior" as an indicator of human trafficking. Furthermore, according to a 2013 study published in BCM Psychiatry, more than 50% of a group of 120 trafficking survivors showed symptoms of mental illnesses including PTSD, anxiety disorder, and depression. "Assessment for mental disorders should be part of re-integration follow-up care for women survivors of human trafficking," the report concludes, calling for treatment plans based on each person's individual needs.

Andrews points out that any one of these singular signs taken in a vacuum might not indicate anything. "However, when observed in conjunction with each other at the same time, they start to paint a picture of a potential victim or a youth at high risk of being trafficked or exploited," she says. And if you suspect someone is a victim of trafficking, it's important to do something about it. While Kyle discourages you from directly intervening, as it can put you and the victim at risk, you can still do your part by reporting potential situations of trafficking. Even if you have doubts, it's important that you report any suspicious activity.

"You should call in a tip because it's no harm, no foul," Withers adds. "If you call an a tip and ... nothing, you know nothing happened. But how terrible would you feel if you had the chance? If you were the one that could have made a difference in whether that woman or girl or even man ... if that victim is abused and victimized for a number of years, simply because you didn't want to get involved?"


Dr. David Kyle, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, and expert on human trafficking

Dr. Mellissa Withers, Ph.D., associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California's Online Master of Public Health program

Erin Andrews, executive director of FAIR Girls

Nicole O’Banion, ombudsman for the Attorney General’s Office of Nevada

Studies referenced:

Abas, M., Ostrovschi, N. V., Prince, M., Gorceag, V. I., Trigub, C., & Oram, S. (2013). Risk factors for mental disorders in women survivors of human trafficking: a historical cohort study. BMC Psychiatry, 13(1), 204.