Human trafficking is a global problem involving the exploitation of people for profit through force, fraud, or coercion. It can include forced labor, debt bondage, domestic servitude, and sexual exploitation. Unfortunately, it occurs in the United States, including in rural and urban areas of Utah.
The Utah State University Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) recently compiled a report with information from approximately 50 sources in an effort to understand the magnitude of human trafficking among Utah girls and women.
Examples the UWLP researchers discovered were numerous. In February of 2021, six people were arrested for human trafficking and prostitution in massage parlors after police intervention in Utah County. In 2020, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received 182 contacts about 64 reported human trafficking cases in Utah. In 2019, 157 victims and 39 traffickers were identified, and in 2018, the Utah Attorney General’s Office conducted 49 human trafficking investigations and reportedly prosecuted eight cases and served 44 victims.
According to Susan Madsen, founding director of the UWLP and one of four report authors, the research shows that trafficking can happen to girls, boys, women, men, and non-binary people who are diverse in race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, among other factors.
“However, the 2020 U.S. federal criminal court cases showed that 98% of victims of sex trafficking were female, and 60% of victims of forced labor were male,” she said. “These rates only reflect those who are identified, rather than the actual rates of those trafficked. We assume the actual numbers are much higher,” Madsen said.
Estimates suggest that there were over 40 million victims worldwide in 2016, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, various regions and countries reported increased domestic human trafficking as a result of loss in financial livelihoods and restrictions placed on movement.
The report shows that forced labor is thought to generate over $150 billion in annual profits globally, of which two-thirds is estimated to be made from forced sexual exploitation, making it one of the world’s most profitable crimes after drug trafficking. It also states that in conflict settings, human trafficking “supports terrorist and armed groups, bankrolls, criminal groups, and transnational crime syndicates, supports abusive regimes, and fosters instability.”
Lead report author and human trafficking researcher, Lindsay Gezinski, said the research shows that victims are usually targeted based on their vulnerability, and if they reintegrate into society, they often return to the same unsafe circumstances that led to their initial victimization, causing possible revictimization.
Possible factors that could make it likely for someone to be trafficked include poverty, family separation, forced displacement, oppression, religious persecution, natural disasters, restrictive migration policies, political dissension, armed conflicts, and situations in which social, economic, and employment opportunities are lacking. Other factors include substance dependence, homelessness, abuse (sexual, physical, and emotional), undocumented immigration status, running away from home, involvement with the foster care system, and being formerly incarcerated.
“And contrary to what we hear in popular culture, traffickers are unlikely to kidnap a complete stranger from the street,” Gezinski said. “The research shows us that traffickers may be acquaintances, friends, romantic partners, or family members. In addition, victims may be lured by fake job advertisements, staffing agencies, and false promises of employment. While the situation is daunting and frightening, there are things we can and must do.”
UWLP researchers identified three ways Utahns can help.
First, implement prevention measures, including community- and school-based education, to help curtail human trafficking before it happens. The Utah Core State Standards for Health Education include recognizing “harassment, abuse, discrimination, and relationship violence prevention and reporting strategies.” Core curriculum designed to teach concepts of healthy relationships, consent, and violence prevention should also include human trafficking education.
Second, recognize the signs of trafficking and provide support. Screening tools may be used in social service, educational, medical, immigration, and criminal legal settings to identify and assist victims and survivors.
Finally, intervention is crucial in eliminating the threats of human trafficking so survivors can receive the immediate and long-term assistance they need to rebuild their lives and avoid revictimization. Depending on individual needs, services such as immediate and long-term shelter, medical and dental services, legal and immigration assistance, mental health treatment, job and life skills training, and help reconnecting with family can assist in a survivor’s recovery and rehabilitation.
Madsen said it is important that key stakeholders do more to end human trafficking in Utah, and while anyone can be trafficked, certain populations are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and should be centered in anti-trafficking efforts.
“A multi-pronged approach that targets prevention, identification, and intervention and uses a coordinated community response is necessary to help prevent human trafficking in Utah,” she said. “With coordinated community responses and partnerships between government and organizations, Utahns can help save lives and change victims’ futures. As Utah works to decrease human trafficking within the state, our communities will become safer, and we can strengthen the power of our Utah girls and women.”
Additional authors for the study are McKayla Caress, research associate, UWLP, and Marin Christensen associate director, UWLP.