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Exploring Human Trafficking: Identifying Survivors

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Young boy looking over net or fenceBy: María Cristina Pacheco Alcalá, Project Coordinator, and Olga Trujillo, JD, Director of Education & Advocacy, Casa de Esperanza: National Latin@ Network

In recognition of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, which occurs every January, Casa de Esperanza has released this overview of the topic for advocates and other direct service providers to use in their work to increase awareness about human trafficking and identify potential survivors.


Human trafficking is both a criminal act and a human rights violation that affects individuals and communities worldwide in urban, suburban and rural areas. It’s not easy to detect because it can involve survivors are afraid to seek help and often do not identify themselves as victims. Trafficked persons can be from any background or ethnicity and might be citizens, legal residents or people without immigration status.

Perpetrators of human trafficking use threats, deception, violence, and coercion to impose physical and psychological tactics to maintain control over their victims to force them into commercial sex acts, labor or other services against their will.[1]

For a more in-depth overview of human trafficking, read our previously published blog, Understanding Human Trafficking.

Definition & Law

Human trafficking is prohibited by federal law and most states’ law. The crime of human trafficking encompasses the entire process of trafficking, from the initial recruitment of the survivor to the commercial exploitation of the survivor. It involves sex trafficking as well as labor trafficking; attempts to traffic are also a crime.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA),[2] passed by the United States Congress in 2000, and reauthorized in 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2013, uses the term “severe forms of trafficking in persons” to describe human trafficking, which is defined as:

“The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person, through force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of a commercial sex act or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.

“The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person, through 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.”

Sex trafficking of children is a crime that involves  minors in the commercial sex industry, regardless of whether force, fraud or coercion is involved. By federal law definition, minors cannot consent to participate in the commercial sex industry.

This definition focuses on three elements of the crime: The Act, the Means and the Purpose. The “Act” refers to the procurement or obtaining of a person. The “Means” refers to the manner by which a person is acquired, or by which control over a person is asserted or maintained. “Purpose” describes the reason or intent behind the exploitation of a person. To be a crime, all three elements must be met, except in the case where the person is under the age of 18 — then the means does not need to be satisfied.

Smuggling vs. Trafficking

On its surface, human trafficking can be confused with the crime of human smuggling; however, they are separate and distinct acts. Smuggling is a discrete, voluntary transaction, the purpose of which is to transport an individual across an international boundary in exchange for payment. The act of smuggling is, therefore, a crime against a state, rather than a crime against a person. Whereas smuggling always involves the crossing of international borders, human trafficking can occur both across borders as well as within a country – and even within a circumscribed geographic area as small as a neighborhood or even a single home or apartment.

While the act of smuggling concludes once the destination is reached, trafficking normally involves ongoing coercion, control, and exploitation, which in some cases, may become evident only after arriving at the agreed upon (or sometimes different) destination. The key distinction is when trafficking is involved, the trafficked individual will not have freedom of movement once arriving to the destination.


Perpetrators use force, fraud and coercion  tactics in domestic violence and often times in sexual assault cases. Advocates working with domestic violence and/or sexual assault survivors could be unknowingly working with someone who has also been trafficked. Careful screening for  signs of human trafficking could help advocates identify survivors they would otherwise miss. The challenge is distinguishing  the tactics of domestic or sexual violence from those of trafficking.

To identify whether a survivor of domestic or sexual violence might also be a victim of trafficking, advocates will need to assess the whole context involving a victim’s situation and gather as much information as possible during initial and ongoing screenings. Studies show that directly asking someone if they are a victim of human trafficking is ineffective. Instead, learning about the person’s general well-being, labor conditions, living conditions, and  freedom of movement will provide advocates key information that helps identify domestic and sexual violence as well as human trafficking because it uncovers force, fraud, or coercion indicators.

  • Ask biographical background questions that could help you understand the survivor’s family relations, place of origin, economic conditions, education, etc.
  • Explore access to government-issued identification documents – where they are, who has access to them, how easy or hard would it be to get them, and why.
  • Engage in conversations where the person is able to talk about what they currently do, what their living conditions are like, how they feel about , whether they are being forced to do anything they don’t want to do, whether they receive a salary for their job, what the workplace conditions/environment is like, who recruited them, and other related questions.
  • Inquire about his/her freedom of movement — Can the person freely contact friends or family members? Can the person contact and spend time with others outside of work-related activities?
  • Find out if the participant or their family has been threatened or deprived of food, water, sleep, medical care, or other life necessities.
  • Look for physical barriers or challenges that the person may face – Are these related to their current living/work situation? Are these barriers connected to a health or medical condition?

Screening Questions

The Polaris Project is one of many sources that provide free screening questions that help advocates identify human trafficking victims and survivors. Advocates can review and adapt such tools to implement in their programs and help them assess whether a survivor has been trafficked so that they can refer them to appropriate services. The questions below are some examples of the kind of open-ended inquiries advocates should consider including in their intake process and ongoing work with survivors.

General Well-being

How do you feel? When was your last meal? Do you need anything to eat or drink? Do you have any illness or physical ailments that are currently bothering you?

When was the last time you saw a doctor? Where did you go to see the doctor? Do you have any illnesses or chronic conditions that require medication? If so, do you have access to that medication?

What kinds of activities do you do throughout the day? Can you describe a typical day?

Who do you spend time with? Are you around others throughout the day? Do you have friends or family that you feel you can confide in? Do you have the opportunity to meet new people and make friends?

Has there ever been a time when you went without food, water, sleep, or medical care? How often does/did this happen?

Labor Conditions

How do you make money? Tell me about your job. How did you find out about the job?

How do you get food, clothing, and other things you need?

Describe a typical work day. When do you start and when do you finish? What types of tasks do you do? Is any of the work you do dangerous?

Do you live and work in the same place?

How and when are you paid for the work that you do? Do you cash your own paycheck? Does your employer hold your money? Do you have access to that money whenever you want?

What are some of the work rules that you have to follow?

What would happen if you decided to leave your job?

Living Conditions & Freedom of Movement

Where do you live? Who else lives there with you? What are the people you live with like? What are the sleeping arrangements? Do you have privacy?

How often do you leave your home? What do you do when you leave your home? Do you ever leave your home alone? Do you have neighbors?

Are there activities you enjoy outside the home?

What would happen if you left your home or job?

What rules are there in your home?

Are there any rules about when you or others eat, sleep, or use certain areas of the house/apartment?

Are there locks on your doors and windows? Do they prevent you from leaving?

Force, Fraud and Coercion Indicators

Have you seen others threatened or harmed? Have you ever been afraid that might happen to you?

Has there ever been a time when someone made you do something you didn’t want to do? When was that? How did it happen? How often does this happen?

Tell me about things you worry about or are scared of.

Have you been threatened? Have you been physically harmed? What kind of threats have you experienced? Do you think they could carry out those threats?

[1] National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

[2] Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, 22 U.S. Code Chapter 78.

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