Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Encyclopedia of Social Work. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 26 June 2022

Human Trafficking Overviewfree

Human Trafficking Overviewfree

  • Fariyal Ross-SheriffFariyal Ross-SheriffHoward University
  •  and Julie OrmeJulie OrmeGrand Canyon University


Human trafficking (HT), also known as modern-day slavery, has received significant emphasis since the early 21st century. Globalization and transnational migration trends continue to amplify economic disparities and increase the vulnerability of oppressed populations to HT. The four major forms of exploitation are labor trafficking, sex trafficking, state-imposed forced labor, and forced marriage. Victims of HT are exploited for their labor or services and are typically forced to work in inhumane conditions. The majority of these victims are from marginalized populations throughout the world. Although both men and women are victims of HT, women and children are heavily targeted. Interdisciplinary and multi-level approaches are necessary to effectively combat HT. Combating HT is particularly relevant to the profession of social work with its mission of social justice. To address the needs of the most vulnerable of society, prevention, intervention and advocacy strategies are presented. Roles and implications for social workers in education and practice and for the profession are presented at the micro level.


  • Children and Adolescents
  • International and Global Issues
  • Macro Practice
  • Social Justice and Human Rights

Updated in this version

Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.


Human trafficking (HT), also known as modern-day slavery, continues to receive significant attention in global circles. Globalization and transnational migration trends persist in amplifying economic disparities and increasing the vulnerability of oppressed populations to different forms of HT. Most victims of HT are generally exploited for labor or sexual purposes. A smaller proportion are victims of organ removal or unethical adoption processes (Roby & Bergquist, 2014). Persons most vulnerable to HT are generally the poor, the marginalized, and individuals seeking employment opportunities. Although “modern slavery” is not defined by legislation or policy, the term covers extreme forms of exploitation that exist in our society (International Labour Organization, 2017; Zimmerman & Kiss, 2017).

This umbrella term includes labor trafficking, sex trafficking, state-imposed forced labor, and forced marriage. For the sake of inclusivity, all of these types of modern slavery will be discussed in this article. In the United States, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Victim Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 provided the following definition of HT:


sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or


the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. (United States Department of State, 2000, p. 8)

Global estimates of HT have historically been difficult to gather due to the subversive nature of contemporary slavery. The International Labour Organization (ILO), in collaboration with other organizations, has developed enhanced methodology procedures to calculate current estimates of human trafficking. Using data from several stakeholders, the ILO (2017) estimates there are approximately 24.9 million victims of human trafficking throughout the world. In 2016, approximately 403,000 people in the United States were considered to be living in modern-day slavery (Global Slavery Index, 2018).

Labor Trafficking

The International Labour Organization (2017) estimates there are currently approximately 24.9 million victims of labor trafficking worldwide, which is 4 million more than the 2013 estimate (International Labour Organization, 2013). Labor trafficking can be found in virtually every industry throughout the world. Victims of labor trafficking are forced to work without payment or without sufficient payment often in horrible conditions. Individuals are exploited for labor within their own country or across international borders, with migrants being particularly susceptible to this form of trafficking (United States Department of State, 2013). Debt bondage is the provision of services for personal debt and is recognized as the most prevalent type of labor trafficking. This type of trafficking exists mostly in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal (Bales, 2004).

Within the United States, common forms of labor trafficking are domestic servitude, agricultural or farming work, and factory work (National Human Trafficking Hotline, 2018). Labor trafficking has also been discovered in strip clubs, in peddling and begging rings, and in the hospitality industry (National Human Trafficking Hotline, 2018). Traveling sales crews that sell magazines or other items have been identified as being particularly exploitive of younger, lower income individuals, some as young as 15 (Polaris Project, 2015). Both male and female victims are recruited with promises of opportunities to travel and earn a high income (Polaris Project, 2015). Victims typically have limited formal education and low incomes (Polaris Project, 2015). After an initial “honeymoon” period where the victims are treated well, they are isolated and removed from familiar territory (Polaris Project, 2015). They may experience physical abuse, emotional abuse, or threat of abandonment (Polaris Project, 2015).

Sex Trafficking

The International Labour Organization (2017) estimates that there are 4.8 million victims of sex trafficking worldwide, with approximately one million being children. Victims and their families are often misinformed regarding employment opportunities and/or the nature of the sex trade (Roby, 2005). The majority of sex trafficking victims, approximately 99%, are women and girls (International Labour Organization, 2017). From this total, approximately 70% are exploited in Asia and the Pacific region; roughly 14% of sex trafficking victims are found in Europe and Central Asia, followed by 8% on the continent of Africa, 4% in the Americas, and 1% in Arab states (International Labour Organization, 2017). Victims are typically exploited for roughly two years before they are able to escape (International Labour Organization, 2017).

In the United States, sex traffickers generally prey upon the most vulnerable of society, often targeting individuals who have a history of mental, physical, or sexual abuse (Polaris Project, 2017b). Sex trafficking occurs in the following settings: residential brothels, hostess clubs, online escort services, fake massage businesses, strip clubs, and street prostitution (Polaris Project, 2017b). The internet has been identified as a primary strategic tool of sex traffickers and perpetrators to sell and purchase sexual services in the United States (Polaris Project, 2017b). Pornography, chat rooms, personal ads, and fake massage parlors are advertised on various websites (Polaris Project, 2017b). Online predators seek out the emotionally vulnerable through social media and attempt to lure individuals into the sex industry with fraudulent information (Polaris Project, 2017b). Recent studies suggest that minors are the most susceptible population to become victims of sex trafficking in America (Kotrla, 2010). The sex trafficking of youth in the United States is known as domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST).

Nation-State-Imposed Forced Labor

Around the world, about 4.1 million people are forced to work in various capacities by state officials or rebel groups (International Labour Organization, 2017). State governments may impose compulsory labor on persons as a means of economic development for the nation in agriculture or in the form of public work (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2019). This includes persons conscripted for military service and prisoners forced to work against their will and outside of guidelines established by the International Labour Organization (International Labour Organization, 2017). Although internationally adopted protocols and conventions prohibit forced labor, national regulations may “legally” allow for compulsory labor (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2019). Historically, the country of Myanmar received heavy sanctions for using forced labor in military campaigns and construction projects (Bales, 2004; Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2019). In March 2012, Myanmar enacted a new law that criminalized the use of forced labor, resulting in fewer human rights violations. The United Nations has also reported the recruitment of child soldiers in 55 countries including Afghanistan, Burma, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen (Schlein, 2014). Globally there are between 250,000 and 300,000 child soldiers under the age of 18 (Schlein, 2014). Nevertheless, state-imposed forced labor is dwindling and “has practically disappeared in most countries” (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2019, p. 29). These diminishing numbers have been attributed to new governmental policies as well as pressure from trade unions and civil society representatives (International Labour Organization, 2018).

Special Groups of Human Trafficking Victims

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by human trafficking (HT), and relatively recent estimates report there are 28.7 million female victims around the world (International Labour Organization, 2017). A global study completed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) demonstrated that women and children are more vulnerable to HT (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2012). Women are particularly vulnerable to HT in the domestic service industry where informal employment is not usually regulated by government labor laws (United States Department of State, 2013). The feminization of poverty and gender-biased cultural norms that encourage the subjugation of women increase their vulnerability to HT.

Worldwide, approximately 10.1 million victims of human trafficking are under the age of 18, which is a significant increase from the 2013 estimate at 4.6 million (International Labour Organization, 2017). Roughly, 1.2 million children are trafficked annually worldwide (Blumhofer et al., 2011). There are about 5.7 million child victims of forced marriage worldwide, with the highest prevalence in Africa followed by Asia and the Pacific (International Labour Organization, 2017). About 4.5 million children are victims of some type of forced labor such as construction, fishing, factory, or domestic work. Armed conflict leaves children particularly vulnerable to trafficking, especially when children are refugees or are internally displaced (United States Department of State, 2013). Of those forced to work by state forces, there are about 287,000 child victims. Children are also trafficked for sexual exploitation, begging, petty theft, sweat shop work, and organ harvesting (Kara, 2009).

When women are trafficked, the children they leave behind are especially vulnerable to exploitation (Faulkner et al., 2013). Although current estimates of trafficked parents and their children are unavailable, the impact of trafficking on the family unit cannot be overlooked (Faulkner et al., 2013). The effects of separation of trafficked individuals from their families is similar to the disruption that occurs in transnational families (Faulkner et al., 2013). Both groups experience many challenges, which lead to an unstable family unit. Children born into trafficking situations are another extremely vulnerable group. Further research is necessary to document and understand the experiences of second-generation victims of HT.

Forced marriage, as a cultural practice, may not necessarily meet the definition of human trafficking, but in circumstances of severe exploitation forced marriage is recognized as a form of modern-day slavery. Around the world, approximately 15.4 million people are living in a forced marriage, that is, marriage without personal consent (International Labour Organization, 2017). Although some men and boys enter into forced marriages, the majority of these victims (88%) are women and girls. Roughly a third of these victims (37%) are forced into marriage under the age of 18, also known as child marriage. The greatest prevalence of forced marriages (90%) occur in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Due to limited data collection in several countries, these numbers are considered to be preliminary and the prevalence of forced marriage throughout the world is likely underestimated. Factors that contribute to forced marriage are varied and complicated. Families may sell their children to repay a debt when financially destitute or as a result of long-standing cultural traditions such as arranged marriage. Adults and children are also forced into marriage to procure legal entry into a nation.

In the United States, the issue of forced marriage is gaining greater attention due to several quantitative studies and anecdotal evidence that demonstrate the need for widespread concern (Martin, 2018). Between 2016 and 2018, a total of 12 states deliberated on legislation that would provide greater restrictions on civil marriages for minors, and four states adopted these reforms (Martin, 2018). Although national prevalence is unknown, a survey of community-based service providers conducted in 47 states identified more than 3,000 cases of forced marriage between 2009 and 2011 (McFarlane et al., 2016). Estimating exact prevalence of forced marriage is impeded by a number of factors including inadequate training in identifying victims and poor assessment tools; the complex intersections of child brides, forced marriages, and intimate partner violence present even greater impediments to gathering information on this hard to reach population (McFarlane et al., 2016).

Key Determinants of Human Trafficking Globally and in the United States

The key determinants of human trafficking (HT) are related to “push and pull factors” and theories of migration. The “push” factors that contribute to the possibility of being trafficked are: poverty, limited employment, economic and political instability, environment decay, natural disasters, conflict-related displacement, limited educational opportunities, and family violence (Bryant-Davis et al., 2009). Examples of the “pull” factors increasing the probability of entering situations of HT are: demand for cheap labor and services, higher wages, and increased life opportunities. Vulnerable populations that reside in areas where several “push” factors are present have an increased likelihood of entering the trafficking process. With some amendments to the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Act of 2018 tasked USAID with addressing the “root causes of insecurity that leave children and youth vulnerable to trafficking” around the world (Wells, 2019, p. 12).

Global Policy

In the last twenty years, there has been a proliferation of anti-trafficking legislation, but implementation and enforcement of these policies remains challenging. With conflicting global perspectives regarding how to address human trafficking (HT), varying approaches have been utilized to prevent, combat and monitor HT. The following section discusses barriers to effective policy as well as opportunities for change as nations, including the United States, attempt to enact policies targeting labor and sex trafficking.

Labor Trafficking

In 2000, the United Nations implemented the Palermo Protocol, or the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (United States Department of State, 2013). The Palermo Protocol provides guidance for governments to prevent HT, protect victims of HT, and prosecute traffickers (United States Department of State, 2013). This protocol has since been ratified by over 173 countries (United States Department of State, 2019). The practical implementation of these laws and punishment of human traffickers remains problematic, as relatively few traffickers are prosecuted, and the identification of victims continues to be challenging, with only approximately 85,600 victims identified worldwide in 2018 (United States Department of State, 2019). The legislative discourse on HT has largely ignored the poor societal conditions that support labor trafficking (Alvarez & Alessi, 2012). Political activists and popular media have mostly focused on the sex trafficking of women and children (Alvarez & Alessi, 2012). Due to this narrow lens regarding HT, men trafficked for labor are often overlooked and may not receive support (Alvarez & Alessi, 2012). Alvarez and Alessi (2012) assert the importance of creating policies that address the societal conditions that support global labor exploitation in all its forms. High numerical estimates of labor trafficking victims, approximately 24.9 million worldwide, indicate the need for greater attention to labor exploitation in political arenas (International Labour Organization, 2017).

The pervasiveness of labor trafficking in virtually every formal and informal industry cannot be battled by labor laws and policies alone (Jägers & Rijken, 2014). Multinational corporations can have a significant impact on the reduction of labor trafficking by following fair labor practices that do not violate human rights (Jägers & Rijken, 2014). In 2011, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations adopted the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights Framework (Human Rights Council, 2011). This resolution encourages corporations to voluntarily accept responsibility for protecting human rights in the workplace. The adoption of these human rights principles within corporations offers greater transparency to labor practices without being legally binding (Jägers & Rijken, 2014). Multinational corporations that neglect to embrace these principles should be subject to societal pressure and public scrutiny.

Although some may doubt the capability of public opinion and societal forces to curtail labor trafficking, the strength of corporate responsibility is gaining support. Fair trade labeling has had some success in curtailing child labor and unfair labor practices (Baradaran & Barclay, 2011). To obtain a fair trade label, companies voluntarily participate in private monitoring to ensure safe working conditions, adequate compensation, and healthy labor practices; fair trade labels certify that products have been manufactured and traded without child labor and meet standards for quality economic, social, and environmental conditions (Baradaran & Barclay, 2011). Fair trade labeling organizations, such as Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair USA) and Fairtrade International (formerly Fairtrade Labelling Organization [FLO]), promote greater transparency among businesses and ethical trading practices (Baradaran & Barclay, 2011). Fair trade organizations have had a significant impact on reducing child labor in the production of tea, coffee, and cocoa in countries worldwide (Baradaran & Barclay, 2011). Creating governmental policies that support validated fair trade organizations could generate needed awareness necessary to effectively combat labor trafficking.

Obtaining cooperation from businesses to eradicate human trafficking within their supply chain remains problematic because exploitative practices can determine the longevity and life of corporations. As Zimmerman and Kiss (2017) assert, “Exploitative practices are commonly sustained by business models that rely on disposable labor, labyrinthine supply chains, and usurious labor intermediaries alongside weakening labor governance and protections, and underpinned by deepening social and economic divisions” (p. 1). Addressing these issues requires a genuine and lasting commitment from business owners, management, and employees. Some believe that corporations are more likely to address human trafficking issues if given time by consumers, in a litigation free environment, to make necessary changes to their companies (Shelley & Bain, 2015). Shelley and Bain (2015) assert that “Through training of leadership and personnel; establishing standards of conduct and performance; supply chain identification; and financial analysis, businesses have the ability to eliminate human trafficking, particularly labor trafficking” (p. 141). These anti-trafficking measures have been successful in travel and tourism, technology, and financial services industries and should be replicated in other business sectors (Shelley & Bain, 2015). In addition, development and implementation of regulations that monitor safe labor practices could assist in curbing exploitive business practices.

Sex Trafficking

Policy regarding sex trafficking remains controversial due to discord regarding the varying approaches toward the regulation of the commercial sex industry. Sex worker advocates view the criminalization of prostitution as disrespecting the agency of women and limiting their ability to work (Berger, 2012). Sex worker advocates push for the legalization and regulation of prostitution to improve their ability to negotiate terms within the commercial sex industry (Marinova & James, 2012). Berger (2012) claims that emphasis on ending demand, which criminalizes buyers of sexual services, only drives commercial sex activity further underground where potential for violence increases. Pro-worker advocates also contend that the legalization of prostitution would actually improve health services for sex workers and enhance their safety (Berger, 2012). If sex workers are lawfully engaged in the commercial sex industry, the probability of violent acts committed against them would be reduced (Berger, 2012). However, feminist and human rights advocates adamantly oppose these policies.

Varying policy approaches to sex trafficking have been implemented throughout the world. The legalization of sex work in the Netherlands and Greece has been found to actually increase the number of HT victims (Marinova & James, 2012). In the Netherlands the reported number of HT victims was 228 in 1998, but by 2008, the number of HT victims had jumped to 826 (Marinova & James, 2012). Some take an abolitionist approach, which views sexual exploitation, including trafficking and purchasing of sexual services, as acts of violence against a person’s dignity, and within this abolitionist concept individuals that engage in prostitution are viewed as victims of subjugation and objectification (Marinova & James, 2012). Qualitative evidence in Sweden suggests that the abolitionist approach decreases the purchase of sexual services Sweden applied criminalization policies that targeted the purchaser of sexual services, rather than the provider, and the trafficker (Marinova & James, 2012). In Sweden, prevention measures of education and awareness campaigns were implemented to inform citizens and combat HT (Marinova & James, 2012). Although many nations have adopted the Palermo Protocol, the success of HT policies worldwide is largely dependent upon the actual implementation within each nation.

U.S. Policy

In the United States, human trafficking (HT) has become a domestic problem with transnational dimensions. The passing of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000 was a significant hurdle in the fight against HT (Polaris Project, 2014). This legislation was similar to the Palermo Protocol in its approach to HT, with its focus on prevention of HT, prosecution of human traffickers, and protection for HT victims. This legislation mandated that HT be considered a federal crime. Under the direction of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Program (ATIP) was initiated in response to the TVPA. This program collaborates with several agencies nationwide to raise awareness and support victims of HT. For example, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center established a national hotline for trafficking victims and is supported by ATIP. The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons was also established with this legislation. Various adjustments and improvements have been made to the TVPA of 2000 with subsequent legislation. The act has been amended nine times with the most recent reauthorization occurring in the 115th Congress (Wells, 2019). The Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2018 directs the Department of Labor to document in public reports those goods that violate international standards or goods made with child labor or forced labor (Wells, 2019). Additional funds to complete these additional tasks have not been appropriated, however. Enhanced training initiatives are now offered to law enforcement personnel and prosecutors that focus on the importance of reducing demand and using a victim-centered approach (Wells, 2019). Greater financial assistance is now offered to service providers in the form of grants and training to support victims of human trafficking and offer public awareness campaigns with schools. The TVPA has had a significant impact upon trafficking activity with reauthorized funding for federal anti-trafficking programs and specialized services to victims.

Challenges and Consequences of Human Trafficking

Anti-trafficking policy is necessary to combat human trafficking (HT), but not adequate as will be demonstrated in the sections below. At the Macro/Policy level, challenges within global markets and the creation of vulnerable populations are explored. At the Micro level, the consequences of HT experienced by victims are identified and discussed.

At Macro/Policy Level

Even with strong policies to combat HT, the challenges of adequately addressing this complex issue can seem insurmountable within the context of globalization. The impact of global markets and technological advances including mechanization processes amplifies the gap between rich and poor. Multinational corporations make market decisions in the best interest of their companies without much consideration for labor opportunities, working conditions, environmental consequences, or the social costs to the surrounding community (Ross-Sheriff, 2007). Although these organizations are attempting to increase corporate responsibility related to these human and environmental factors, economic disparities continue to grow ever wider (Ross-Sheriff, 2007). As a result, low-skilled individuals living in economically developing nations become more vulnerable to HT. People searching for greater life opportunities and chances for financial stability become ensnared in precarious situations that may threaten their lives.

The accurate identification of traffickers and victims eludes law enforcement authorities and health professionals. Victims of HT may be linguistically, culturally, and geographically isolated from the community without legal documentation. The use of the internet to conduct illicit business transactions, such as solicitation for labor or sexual services, further obscures victims from the public eye. The actual apprehension of traffickers is also impaired by HT conducted via the internet, where computer IP addresses rarely lead to an arrest. If the human trafficker can be found, victims of HT may not be interested in prosecuting their trafficker, due to fear of retaliation or possibility of deportation.

At Micro/Individual Level

Moreover, the consequences of prolonged exposure to traumatic experiences severely impacts victims’ physical and mental health. According to Oram et al. (2012), possible physical consequences of HT include headaches, fatigue, back and stomach pain, memory problems, traumatic brain injury, and sexually transmitted infections. The mental health disorders of HT victims may be similar to those that have lived in an active war zone or experienced torture (Williamson et al., 2008). Prevalent mental health symptoms of HT victims include anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); Dovydaitis, 2010). These health consequences indicate the life-altering cost to victims of HT. Despite traumatic experiences, some victims of HT exhibit resilience and hope for the future (Faulkner et al., 2013).

To assist HT victims along the path to recovery, multidisciplinary efforts are required. Law enforcement officials, medical personnel, border patrol security officers, legal professionals, community organization representatives, faith-based leaders, mental health counselors, and others must collaborate to confront this problem collectively. Social workers can fill the role of coordinator in arranging treatment for HT victims in the following settings: police stations, law offices, hospitals, court rooms, and mental health clinics (Busch-Armendariz et al., 2014). With a mission of social justice and advocacy, social workers should be at the forefront in combating HT with a focus on interdisciplinary collaboration.

Implications for Social Work Education, Practice, and Advocacy

To address the multidimensional dilemma of human trafficking (HT), social workers should utilize a multisystemic approach of prevention, intervention, education, training, and advocacy. Social workers should be involved in prevention programming to minimize the risk factors that increase the probability of trafficking activity. Empirically relevant interventions that are trauma-informed and culturally competent are essential components to addressing HT. As professionals, social workers should be at the forefront, educating youth and communities regarding the nature of HT and its consequences. In institutions of higher learning, HT must be added to social work curricula. Human service programs will look to social workers to provide training for professionals who assist in identifying victims, making proper referrals, and providing clinical treatment. Finally, social workers need to be involved in advocating for legislation and encouraging faith-based initiatives that reduce HT. Implications for social work education and practice are presented in the next six sections.

Prevention of Human Trafficking: At the Macro Level

The precursor to eliminating human trafficking (HT) begins with fulfilling the needs of vulnerable populations worldwide. Human traffickers generally seek to enslave those persons that are excluded from society—marginalized ethnic minorities, undocumented immigrants, the indigenous, the poor, and persons with disabilities (United States Department of State, 2013). Victims are often fraudulently lured into HT with promises of employment and a better life. Less frequently, recruiters approach families of those who live in poverty and purchase children with promises to their caregivers for improved opportunities for them in urban settings or in another country (Hodge & Lietz, 2007). In the United States, Fong and Cardoso (2010) purport that “runaway, homeless, kidnapped children or children in or leaving foster care are at elevated risk of forced prostitution and trafficking” (p. 311).

The discussion for prevention of HT has rarely acknowledged the breakdown of the traditional family as a “push” factor. Strengthening the family unit through micro-credit, education, health prevention, and faith-based initiatives could significantly reduce the vulnerability of persons to HT. There are several evidence-based programs that have proven to curtail high-risk behavior of children and youth (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2013b). The implementation of these programs among vulnerable populations could have a dramatic effect on HT activity. Improving family bonds can provide protection for potential victims and diminish the propensity of adults to turn to the HT “business” for income or personal pleasure.

Creating awareness among vulnerable populations is another key to the prevention of HT. Awareness campaigns that target marginalized populations could limit the ability of traffickers to draw people into dangerous conditions. Culturally sensitive campaigns should access the most vulnerable of society, specifically reaching out to impoverished communities and rural areas. For example, within the United States, January has been designated as National Slavery and HT Awareness Month (Obama, 2013). Policy advocates should push for greater legal scrutiny and the adoption of regulations to ensure that human rights within businesses and corporations are not violated.

Faith-based communities can also assist in educating their members about the prevalence and the prevention of HT. Awareness regarding signs of labor and sexual exploitation within these communities can aid in identification of victims. Faith-based leaders can work with health professionals, social service providers, and law enforcement representatives to combat HT within their local communities. Faith-based initiatives can help reduce the risk of individuals to exploitation by educating their members regarding tactics of traffickers and online safety.

Educational and outreach programs should be implemented in school systems to increase awareness among youth. These programs must include information about online predators and false advertisement for employment. As internet access becomes ever more accessible, guarding against masquerading predators becomes more challenging. Seemingly legitimate job postings online can lead to entrapment. Traffickers may groom their victims over time with luxurious gifts or promises of high-paying jobs (Kotrla, 2010). Youth need to be educated regarding the sophisticated tactics that traffickers might use to lure them into possible HT or exploitation.

A harm reduction program completed in Minnesota demonstrated that educational efforts were successful in reducing the risk of girls being sexually exploited (Pierce, 2012). In combination with multi-level interventions, healthy sexuality education and peer support groups were provided (Pierce, 2012). Implementing psycho-education programs regarding HT within public school systems can inform youth of their rights. With a special emphasis on educating marginalized groups, outreach programs can enlighten individuals and help to curb HT.


Due to the hidden nature of human trafficking (HT), social workers must be trained in victim identification. The 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report calls for social workers to be informed “because children who have been abused at home, have run away, are alcohol- or drug-dependent, or are in the care of child-welfare agencies are at high risk for HT” (United States Department of State, 2013). The Rescue and Restore Victims of Human Trafficking Campaign offers a list of possible clues that someone may be a victim of trafficking: “evidence of being controlled; evidence of inability to move or leave a job; bruises or other signs of battering; fear or depression; non-English speaking; recently brought to this country; and lack of passport, immigration, or identification documents” (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2008; Dovydaitis, 2010, p. 464). Social workers must also be prepared to recognize common health problems of victims: anxiety, chronic pain, cigarette burns, complications with unsafe abortion, contusions, depression, fractures, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, oral health problems, pelvic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexually transmitted infections, suicidal ideation, unhealthy weight loss, unwanted pregnancy, and vaginal pain (Dovydaitis, 2010).

Services to Victims: At the Micro Level

Proper victim identification has been a major barrier to provision of services to human trafficking (HT) victims (United States Department of State, 2013). Victims of HT are sometimes identified as illegal immigrants or criminals and may be subject to arrest, detention, deportation, or prosecution (United States Department of State, 2013). In the United States, law enforcement officers are most likely to come across victims of HT in their line of work (Wilson et al., 2006). The call for increased victim identification training among government officials has been heard. The Anti-Human Trafficking Manual for Criminal Justice Practitioners identifies common experiences of HT victims and procedures to follow upon discovery of an HT victim (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2013a). The manual encourages criminal justice practitioners to refer the victim for counseling services for stabilization if deemed necessary. Social workers can liaise with law enforcement to coordinate multidimensional care that includes medical services, counseling services, case management, housing services, legal services, income support, and employment services (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2013a).

According to Busch-Armendariz et al. (2014), using an ecological systems perspective to guide service delivery for HT victims has demonstrated effectiveness. Social workers that were designated as the single point of contact for HT victims were able to provide “improved consistency, efficiency, and effective delivery of services that ultimately resulted in better services to survivors” (Busch-Armendariz et al., 2014, p. 13). Using this model, social workers are able to advocate for HT victims in accessing services and navigating legal processes (Busch-Armendariz et al., 2014).

During the first encounter with HT victims, social workers may utilize the Comprehensive Human Trafficking Assessment developed by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (National Human Trafficking Resource Center, 2011). This assessment provides a wide-range of questions for service professionals to help identify a HT victim, which include general trafficking questions, sex trafficking questions, and labor trafficking questions (National Human Trafficking Resource Center, 2011).

Currently, there are limited evidence-based interventions for the clinical treatment of HT victims. Williamson et al. (2008) report that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the most commonly cited disorder in scholarly research on HT victims. Anxiety disorders, mood disorders, dissociative disorders, and substance-related disorders have also been identified as prevalent disorders among HT victims (Williamson et al., 2008). Until appropriate treatments have been established, researchers suggest utilizing treatments that have proven effective with similar populations, that is, migrant laborers, victims of sexual abuse and violence, and victims of torture (Williamson et al., 2008).

Clawson et al. (2008) recommend using trauma-informed services with victims of HT. Trauma-informed care includes having knowledge of the traumatic experiences of victims (Clawson et al., 2008). Trauma-informed services also provide a therapeutic framework for understanding the vulnerability of victims and the impact of multiple traumatic events (Williamson et al., 2008).

Fong and Cardoso (2010) suggest utilizing trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) with child trafficking victims.

Agency-Based Responses: At the Organizational Level

There are few organizations that deal specifically with trafficking victims within the United States. The Salvation Army STOP-IT program is a faith-based agency that serves victims of human trafficking (HT) in Chicago, Illinois (Knowles Wirsing, 2012). This agency uses a comprehensive model to provide crisis intervention, victim identification, training, and service coordination to victims of HT. The STOP-IT program serves male and female victims of labor and sex trafficking. In 2011, STOP-IT actively assisted 79 people, and they continue to receive regular referrals (Knowles Wirsing, 2012). Using a comprehensive model of treatment, that liaison with an array of community services is undoubtedly the most effective approach to intervention with victims of HT.

The Girls Educational and Mentoring Services’ (GEMS) program has also met with some success with providing services to sexually exploited youth and children in New York City. The GEMS program provides direct intervention through short-term and crisis care, transitional and supportive housing, court advocacy, and holistic case management. The case management services include trauma-based therapy and individual support sessions. In addition, GEMS provides an educational program, a youth development program, and a youth leadership program. As part of the youth outreach program, members conduct peer-led facility outreach workshops within residential facilities and detention facilities (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, 2013). Peer-led trainings are dynamic in their approach to HT. Evaluation of peer-led trainings vis-à-vis adult-led trainings might generate significant results for agency-based responses.

Social Work Education

The topic of human trafficking (HT) must be included in social work curricula at the bachelor’s and master’s level. Thus far, the literature for health professionals on HT has covered the following topics: trafficking definition and scope, health consequences, victim identification, appropriate treatment, referral to services, legal issues, security, and prevention (Ahn et al., 2013). These topics set the groundwork for the development of curricula on trafficking (Ahn et al., 2013). Theoretical approaches to trafficking are also necessary. Ahn et al. (2013) suggest using the social ecological model to address this multisystemic problem. This model encourages prevention strategies be used at the individual, relationship, community, and societal levels (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021).

Social workers must be educated in trauma-informed care to provide services to victims of HT. High rates of physical and sexual violence experienced by trafficking victims (Oram et al., 2012) indicate the need for trauma-informed services. Addressing the possible multiple victimizations that trafficking victims may have experienced requires a special sensitivity to trauma.

Furthermore, social workers should receive cultural sensitivity competence training to effectively work with victims of HT (Herz, 2012; Salami’ et al., 2021). Although impossible to learn about every culture, social workers can be educated in socio-cultural anthropology to limit ethnocentric perspectives. Becoming familiar with socioeconomic conditions of the HT victim prior to entrapment and cultural norms regarding labor practices, gender roles, and migration patterns would assist the social worker in better understanding victims of HT. Adding a second language component to social work curricula could also assist social workers in meeting the needs of diverse populations.

Advocacy and Social Change Roles

Social workers can be change agents at state, national, and international levels through policy advocacy. By emailing and contacting local and state level legislators, social workers can lobby for funding that supports after-care services and safe houses for survivors (Thomas-Smith et al., 2020). Social workers and health professionals can also advocate for legislation that gives stiffer penalties to traffickers, corporations, and purchasers of sex. Court programs that offer alternatives to arrest for individuals engaged in prostitution have been somewhat successful. The National Committee on Women’s Issues (NCOWI), a board-mandated committee of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), highlight a restorative justice model used in New York where individuals arrested for prostitution receive social services and agree to attend regular court hearings instead of serving jail time (Pace, 2016).

Generating awareness of human trafficking (HT) in local communities and agencies with the use of awareness materials can help to inform victims and advocates (Polaris Project, 2017a). In the classroom, courses should be designed with an advocacy component embedded into the curricula. Lewis et al. (2018) suggest the use of service-learning opportunities where students volunteer for a local nongovernmental anti-trafficking organization as well as the creation of human trafficking awareness presentations that include legal responses. A collaborative multimedia presentation, developed by the class, can then be offered to the university and concerned citizens in the community.

Rather than focusing on survivor services and needs, social workers can focus on prevention and advocate for the improvement of systems that increase vulnerability to human trafficking. For example, foster care and runaway youth in the United States are particularly susceptible to human trafficking and need additional support as they transition to adulthood (Thomas-Smith et al., 2020). Similarly, as refugees and people migrating are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, social workers can advocate for “orderly, safe and just processing of migrants” at international borders (International Federation of Social Work, 2019, para. 2). The social workers’ role in advocating for policies that restrict or end exploitative practices both nationally and internationally while supporting human rights has never been more critical.

Social workers in the United States and other affected countries can work on policy issues such as improved employment policies in both the country of origin and the destination country that would destroy the profit motive for HT. Challenging the societal conditions that support the exploitation of human beings will require social workers adopting a multidisciplinary approach. Collaborative efforts among law enforcement officials, medical personnel, border patrol security officers, legal professionals, community organization representatives, faith-based leaders, and mental health counselors can help to effectively address the needs of HT victims. Social workers can serve as a point of contact among health professionals in coordinating treatment and assisting HT victims in navigating their alternatives in health care and legal systems. Social work professionals, with a mandate of social justice, should be at the forefront of prevention efforts, policy reform, educational campaigns, and empirically relevant therapeutic interventions to combat HT. By combining disciplinary efforts and multi-level approaches, HT can become a phenomenon of the past.