Hidden in plain sight; the misconceptions of human trafficking in America

Human trafficking affects everyone. It does not matter where the person comes from, what is his/her background, environment, culture, or country of origin. One hundred thousand children are bought, sold, and rented in the U.S every year.

“Part of this goes back to not being able to tell the difference between someone who is willingly in the sex industry and someone who is being exploited,” (Chinapen, 2013). These children often are marketed in pornography as college girls. Training of law enforcement and exploring the misconception of human trafficking is critical to the ability of patrol officers to identify the difference between a prostitute and a trafficking victim (Chinapen, 2013).

In the past few years there has been more data available on human trafficking, however the ignorance still exists and due to its illegal nature of modern slavery, numbers in reality are much higher than what is found in research.


Many people are not aware of today’s slavery. It has become a taboo, not many people know about it, and even if they do, they do not talk about it. The media has paid more attention in the past few years, however many of incidents are unheard of as it would create more sensation and fear.

​Currently, there are over 26 million slaves around the world. Approximately 14,500 to 17,500 are trafficked into the United States of America. In California, there are about 559 slaves. UNICEF estimates, at least 1.2 million people are trafficked every year, though due to hidden and illegal nature of human trafficking, gathering statistics on the scale of the problem is difficult (The Advocates for Human Rights, 2008).

​”At least 100,000 children are used in prostitution every year in the U.S. and most are runaway teens. Within 2-3 days of becoming homeless, 1 in 3 teens will be approached by a trafficker and exploited.”
-Eva Wilke


US states with the highest percentage of human trafficking. Where does your state rank?

​Human trafficking has been around for centuries, going back to the ancient times where Romans were using slaves for their work, pleasure, and comfort (Poućki, 2012). After years, people still face slavery, modern slavery.It is the third, largest criminal industry after arm and drug dealing (Polaris Project, 2010). Men, and women are trafficked within their own countries and across international borders. Regardless of how much impact it has globally, and locally, being more aware and educated on human trafficking could be a first step to prevention.

​“When people think of human trafficking, they expect that people are being held behind walls, you know — locked doors,” said Boston Police Sgt. Donna Gavin. “That’s not always the case” (Martin, 2013).

Human trafficking is a “crime against humanity. It involves an act or recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion, or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them” (UNODC, United Nation Office of Drugs and Crime).

Why does trafficking happen?

Human trafficking is not only working as a sex slave. What is even more, human trafficking may happen within a family. Why does human trafficking happen? Is it so easy to get trapped?

The borders between countries have opened; there are more opportunities and chances for a better life. Unfortunately, people forget about their safety and once they have a possibility to expand horizons and experience different life, they just go for it.

​It is critical to be educated about human trafficking in order to be able to avoid danger. Misconception of human trafficking and who is at risk, and geography of slavery in 21st century is a serious problem that should be investigated more closely.

Victims of human trafficking are most of the time not identified. Therefore they do not receive proper care, and their cases are misclassified. For instance, many cases of sex trafficking, especially when the victims are romantically involved with their traffickers, are identified as sexual or domestic violence.

​Social service professionals report, this is a result of limited awareness by law enforcement, community service providers, and medical professionals. They are not trained enough in order to understand the definition of human trafficking and recognize the victims of it (Rape Assistance and Awareness Program, 2011).


Sex trafficking is a form of 21st century slavery. It does not only exist in third world countries, in happens in every country, United States included. Traffickers use variety of tactics to lure the victims. They prey on weakness, psychological and physiological such as threats, violence, lies, and debt bondage.

Under U.S. federal law, any minor under the age of 18 years that have been trafficked, either willingly or not is considered a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of whether or not the trafficker used force, fraud, or coercion.

Every situation is different and some victims become romantically involved then these individuals are forced into work. Others are lured, they are promised a better future, job, money, and good life. Even more, parents or other family members exploit him/her as well. The trafficking situation might last a few days, weeks, month, or years. Some people never get out (Polaris Project, 2016).

There are no limitations or boundaries on who might become a victim. However, traffickers frequently target vulnerable populations: including runaway and homeless youth, as well as victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, war, or social discrimination.

​Victims of sex trafficking can be from all walks of life, different nationalities, backgrounds, sexual orientation, beliefs, and politics. Sex trafficking occurs in a range of venues including fake massage businesses, via online ads or escort services, in residential brothels, on the street or at truck stops, or at hotels and motels.

The lucrative sex trade


Traffickers make on average $150,000-200,000 per child, per year. At least 100,000 children are used in prostitution every year in the U.S.” (The National Report on DMST: America’s Prostituted Children, 2010, Shared Hope).

​The average age of a trafficked child in the United States is 11-12 years old (FBI). The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Throwaway (NISMART) children estimate that every year about 1.6 million children run away from home, in the USA. Moreover, after running away and becoming homeless within two to three days, 1 in 3 teens will be approached by a trafficker and exploited.

As of 2016, there are many shelters and programs available for victims of human trafficking. However, for fifty states, only twenty states have resources that have been somewhat successful. It is important to realize, that the other thirty states – have no place for victims of human trafficking.

In Colorado, there is no place – however, Extended Hands of Hope (in Colorado) is planning on opening the very first emergency shelter for girls that have been victims of human trafficking (Academy for Educational Development 2001-2006; Extended Hands of Hope 2015-2016).

The big issue is assumption of human trafficking. Human condition such as fear of poverty and abundance, vulnerability, and self-worth is deep rooted in individuals. It cannot be easily changed. However, working on a mindset, being able to spot it, and knowing the resources can save one life. One life matters.

The myths of human trafficking

Myth 1: Trafficked persons are foreigners and moved across borders

Truth: The federal definition of human trafficking states that human trafficking includes both U.S citizens and foreign nationals. Since the Trafficking Victim Protection Act as of 2000, both are protected under the federal trafficking statues (NHTRC, 2016). The number of U.S. citizens trafficked within the country each year is estimated at 200,000 American children into the sex industry.

Myth 2: Human trafficking involves travel, transportation, and movement

Truth: Transport might be involved as a controlling tool that way victims stay in unfamiliar places. Trafficking is not forced immigration. For example, if a family member is strained to work for another family member as a housekeeper and he/she is not being paid and treated properly – this could be a case of human trafficking. Conversely, human trafficking is not smuggling. “Smuggling is a crime against a country’s borders. Human trafficking is a crime against a person (NHTRC,2016).”

Myth 3: Human trafficking must include force and physical harm

Truth: This leads to misclassifying cases as traffickers use other forms of control. Traffickers use psychological methods and tools to obtain power over a victim. Victims are manipulated and threatened (NHTRC, 2016). This psychological and cognitive torture leads to lack of self-esteem, self-identity, and lack of trust. Since victims do not have any trust towards anyone, they often blame themselves for getting into a situation. Therefore, they often do not seek immediate help. They do not know how to behave when assistance is being offered (NHTRC, 2016).

Myth 4: Victims of human trafficking come from poverty or small towns

Truth: Anyone can be a victim. Although, poverty might increase the chance of becoming a victim and certainly can be a factor, it is not the reason. Victims come from all range on income level, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In further defining human trafficking, sex trafficking is not the only form of human trafficking. It includes both sex industry and physical labor. The crime can affect men, women, and children (NHTRC, 2016).

Myth 5: Trafficking only occur in illegal underground industries

Truth: Trafficking can happen anywhere. For example, in 2015 in Colorado Springs police raid at three massage places. That had led to the arrest of two people and recovery of seven Chinese nationals – believed to be victims of human trafficking (Denver Post, 2015). Trafficking can take place in illegal businesses as much as in legal settings. This might include hotels, restaurants, and massage places, and other establishments (NHTRC, 2016). Additionally, victims are not always undocumented immigrants. Foreign nationals can be trafficked within USA while on a legal status (NHTRC, 2016).

A Case Study: One case study to examine is that of Martina Okeke. “Martina lived in a dark basement in Queens that reeks of some mystery odor. She earned $100 a week caring for a cherubic toddler. She eked out a few more dollars pushing a battered shopping cart through the streets of South Jamaica, filling it with cans and bottles she plucked from the garbage and cashes in for the deposits. Welcome to America.

She agreed to come to the United States to cook, clean and care for the children of a Nigerian couple living in Staten Island. She said they promised to pay her $300 a month. There were promises of a house and tuition, she added, for her two children back home. She admitted now that she toiled 12 years for a paycheck that never came. Not one cent” (The New York Times, April 2007).

According to a study done by a PhD student at University of Michigan School of Nursing; Domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) is a significant problem on a social scale and also public health issue. It is said that human trafficking has not been given enough attention from healthcare professionals. There is more research, practice, and policy needed. Victim identification and prevention are thus far very limited or entirely absent (Choi KR, 2015).

Furthermore, Choi states that nurses and other healthcare professionals need more training and education in order to identify victims early on. They must know the signs of DMST, inform others, and be able to conduct high quality research (Choi KR, 2015).

Who is at risk?

Everyone is at risk. It is often believed that the victims of human trafficking are young, acquitted girls who were kidnapped and then forced into sex.

Trafficking knows no limits or boundaries. It can be anyone. People from all walks of life are at risk of being trafficked. A person may be trafficked into the United States, or within the United States, regardless of his/her legal status.

​Also, some victims may be desperate to make a better living and they end up being trafficked (Florida University Center for Advancement of Human Rights, 2003).


How does it happen?

Coming to the United States is one of the biggest dreams for many people, especially for young girls. They imagine themselves making careers, getting a job, and having a wonderful free life. They will do whatever it takes to make their dreams come true while not being aware of the danger (Agustin, pp.96-117).

Those girls come mostly from Eastern Europe and Asia; however, trafficking occurs from Egypt, Brazil, Azerbaijan, Russia, and several other Eastern European countries. Nowadays, immigration has become problematic and borders are not open for everyone, thus it is difficult to come to the United States without any papers, passports, and visas.

Therefore, fake organizations take advantage of people, and they promise tourists who are interested in traveling that they will get a great job overseas, and all the legal paperwork will be done for them by the organization. Sounds like a dream come true.

Some people are naïve and almost desperate to do everything for their “dream lives”, mainly young women from poor, developing countries who seem to have no future perspectives. If there is a chance for them to get out and start living a perfect life, they go along with it, without reflecting on it.

​By irrational thinking, they change their lives dramatically, often resulting in being a slave. Accordingly, scam agencies advertise hope, a better life, and perfect future, when in reality, people are trafficked into prostitution, forced labor, military service, domestic service, forced illegal adoption, and forced marriage (Global Report, 2005).

Support progams

There is assistance available to victims of human trafficking. Adult victims of human trafficking, age 18 and over, who are certified by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), can receive federally funded services and benefits to the same extent as refugees.

To receive certification, an individual must: be a victim of human trafficking as defined by the TVPA (Trafficking Victims Protection Act), be willing to assist with the investigation and prosecution of traffickers, and have completed a bona fide application for a T visa, or have received Continued Presence status from the U.S Department of Homeland Security (U.S Department of Health and Human Services).

Victims under age 18 are immediately eligible for benefits; they do not have to apply for a visa. The benefits include: housing, medical care, mental health care, English language training, income assistance, food assistance, and employment assistance.

​Although, to receive above services, the victim needs to survive and somehow be able to run away or to be given their freedom back in order to be even capable of contacting someone.

Need help or want to make a report? Contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC). Or call toll-free: 1-888-373-7888

Let’s end this vile practice

​Human trafficking is the fastest growing form of slavery today, illegal by the law. It is very complicated for a government to deal with the problem due to the unlawful nature of human trafficking. It is nearly impossible to gather data and resources. Nevertheless, by offering wisdom, mindfulness, and compassion, one life can be saved.


Eva Wilke was born in Poland but has spent the last decade living in Denver, Colorado. She holds a BS in Psychology and a Masters in Criminology from Regis University. Eva sits on several nonprofit boards in Denver and her hope for humanity is that we become more selfless and giving. 
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