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The Many Faces of Human Trafficking

Victim or Survivor?

We hear many terms around human trafficking: VICTIM, SURVIVOR, TRAFFICKED PERSON, MODERN DAY SLAVE, etc. This can be a complicated area to navigate. At ALIGHT, we believe that anti-trafficking work must be primarily about the individuals who experienced this grave injustice and are fighting for their lives. We tend to use the term “survivor” to acknowledge and focus on the strength and resilience of these individuals.

At the same time, different individuals and organizations may feel differently and use different terms. For example, the criminal justice system and organizations that work in that area often use the term “victim” because it conveys specific legal rights and protections afforded to someone who is recognized as having that status. International bodies such as the United Nations tend to use “trafficked person.”

Human Trafficking Stories

Whatever term is used, each person who was trafficked has a unique story. The stories below are based on the realities of domestic human trafficking, as the majority of trafficking in the U.S. is domestic. The names, specific incidents and places have been altered so as not to represent any specific individual or group of people.

Meet Rosaline, trafficked into commercial sex.

Rosaline is a single mother living just outside of Denver with two young boys and struggling to make ends meet. When she was most desperate, she met a new boyfriend who said he wanted to help take care of her. That was like music to her ears. Plus, she was happy to have male figure for her boys after her ex had completely abandoned them. While the relationship was promising from the beginning, soon she was once again struggling. Her boyfriend suggested engaging in commercial sex with his friends so Rosaline’s children don’t go hungry. With no other options, she gave in. In time, Rosaline realized her new boyfriend was grooming her for sex trafficking all along. Rosaline finally found the strength to run away to a shelter with her boys and worked with advocates to apply for jobs. She was excited and nervous to start work in an office setting. In her first week on the job though, her boss kept making suggestive comments about her appearance. She felt powerless all over again. She didn’t know her rights as an employee and how to respond to being harassed, afraid to protest and risk losing this job that she needed so badly.

Meet Julian, trafficked into landscaping.

Julian knew which street to stand on with the other day laborers who were looking for work every morning. The bosses would drive by and pick up men for projects. He and some men were offered a big landscaping project at a private residence and promised to be paid on a weekly basis for each full day worked. Julian asked for his money at the end of the first week, and he was told he would get the full amount at the end of next week. He faced a hard choice. Julian need that money for the rent and bills were due at the end of the month. He could not walk away or risk losing everything by making demands. At the end of the second week, when he and the other men finished the job, the boss took them to the bank to cash the checks. He drove the men to another part of town, let them out of the truck “while he parked” and then disappeared. Somehow Julian and the other men got back home. When they saw the same boss picking up other men on the street and demanded their payment, he threatened to call the police and get them in trouble for harassment. Having no documentation for the job or information on the address for the project, they did not know where to turn and some of the men were afraid to risk trouble with the authorities, so they let it go. The best they could do was try to warn the other workers about this boss.

Meet Lin, trafficked into a massage parlor.

Lin came to America because she was desperate for money to send home to her sick parents. Speaking no English, she was stuck and turned to her Chinese community for job opportunities. She was referred to a “successful businesswoman” who offered her the chance to earn money at her massage parlor. There were already 7 other girls there, all not speaking English. Once Lin started, she quickly understood that the madam expected all the girls to provide sexual services to the customers and would not pay them for their regular work. They were also poor like Lin, and were all sleeping on the floor at night. Lin’s only chance for money was the tips she would earn for sex acts, no matter how little was offered. One day there was a big police bust at the massage parlor, and cameras came to cover the story exposing the illicit massage business in the sleepy town. But Lin did not understand how the police could help her, running away with her friend to the next town where she tried to find another massage parlor to work in. Unfortunately, the same story was repeated.

Meet Alex, trafficked into a traveling sales crew.

Alex’s father was violent when he drank and berated Alex incessantly. One day, after one too many beatings, Alex ran away while only 17. Within 24 hours of landing downtown, Alex was approached by a friendly woman that seemed to know what it’s like to be judged by your family and offered to help Alex with a place to stay and some drugs to “chill out.” Alex jumped at the offer, considering himself lucky that everything seemed to be going smoothly. The lady even had some job ideas: to help her sell magazines door to door. The only hitch was Alex had to sell a lot of magazines to pay the lady back for her hospitality, being dropped off with other young kids like himself in cold and unfamiliar places. Pretty soon, Alex was beaten when he didn’t meet his quota for the day, and told to steal to make up the difference. Inevitably, he got caught and was charged with breaking into homes and stealing a couple of times. Being moved around to different places, Alex often does not know where he is. Now 18 and having a number of criminal charges, Alex did try running away for the day and asking for work at local gas stations and other places, but his criminal records always showed up in background checks. He does’t know how to get himself out of this mess.

What’s Next?

Now that you have read these stories, you may want to …

*What is the common tie between these individuals?
*What do they need on their journey to true freedom?
*How does this relate to my life?

Take Action

You can take action to help people like Rosaline, Julian, Lin and Alex. Learn how you can get involved with ALIGHT.

Get Involved

To note, human trafficking statistics represent the tip of the iceberg because of the hidden nature of this crime and the fear of many individuals to come forward.

1  In 2018 alone, there were 7,859 reports of sex trafficking to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which may include commercial sexual exploitation in pornography, escort services, outdoor solicitation and other industries. See the statistics here.
2  Wage theft can rise to the level of labor trafficking where it is coupled with physical and psychological force. For example, where the employer threatens the safety of the worker, or uses false recruitment practices. Research on the prevalence of wage theft in Colorado surveyed 411 day laborers from 2015 to 2017. Read the 2019 University Denver Wage Theft and Its Victims in Colorado Report here.
3  There were 2,949 cases of human trafficking illicit massage, health and beauty and at least 7,000 storefronts in the U.S., and possibly far more, according to the 2018 Polaris Typology of Modern Slavery Report. Read the report here.
4 Traveling sales crews may be moved by the traffickers between different places and forced to sell products the customers may never receive. The young salespeople are rarely fully compensated and are often defrauded, manipulated, and coerced by a larger network that is profiting from the sales crews.575 human trafficking cases and 88 labor exploitation were found, according to the 2018 Polaris Typology of Modern Slavery Report. Read the report here.