Who Can Become a Victim of Human Trafficking?

(The following is an excerpt from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery (2016). Beginning on January 11th, every other day I’ll be posting excerpts from my book to help readers learn more about this issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Essential Abolitionist answers the most often-asked questions about human trafficking, and the response to modern slavery.)


If anyone can become a trafficker, anyone can become a victim. The corollary to “human trafficking is limited only by the imagination and coercive power of the trafficker” is that becoming a victim only entails having a need the trafficker appears to fulfill and the inability (real or perceived) to overcome the force, fraud, or coercion applied.

In trafficking cases involving debt-bondage, for example, the victim is repaying a debt through their labor. Often the victim has received something of value from the trafficker. Perhaps the trafficker paid off a small debt or paid the transportation costs for the victim to travel to the place where the work will be performed, with the understanding that this debt will be repaid to the trafficker. The victim feels he owes a debt, and that may be true. But if the debt collector applies force, fraud, or coercion to keep the victim from leaving, then the debt collector becomes a human trafficker, and the debtor a victim of human trafficking.

This example illustrates why Free the Slaves co-founder and author, Kevin Bales, states the easiest way to exploit a person is to offer them a job.[i] People desperate for employment and without other options make good targets for traffickers.

While trafficking victims are often viewed by the public as relatively uneducated, timid, and perhaps unable to care for themselves, the opposite may be true; many victims of trafficking (both globally and domestically) have been empowered through education or by their families to seek a better life than the one available at home. In the course of this pursuit, these individuals can become vulnerable to exploitation.

Wouldn’t it be easier if trafficking victims had a certain appearance or fit a specific demographic? Of course it would, but that simply isn’t the case. No demographic is without risk. Young children, women, men, older adults, those mentally or physically impaired, those with little or no formal education, college students, those in the LGBTQ community—anyone can be victimized. Understanding this fact is critical for those involved in the response to trafficking or with the potential to have contact with trafficking victims.

However, the demographic patterns of verified victims indicate some populations tend to be more vulnerable to being enslaved than others. For example, we know that runaway children are at risk. Police officers who come into contact with runaways should be aware of this risk and inquire whether they have been exploited. Medical providers in regions where agricultural work is prevalent should be aware of whether trafficking occurs and if so, be mindful when coming into contact with farm workers seeking medical assistance. California law mandates police officers to attempt to identify victims of human trafficking when having contact with persons who have been deprived of their liberty, are suspected of engaging in prostitution, or are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. These examples suggest how awareness of these trends can help abolitionists apply a level of multi-faceted critical thinking to their response efforts.

It is worth restating. Anyone can be a trafficker, and anyone can become a victim. Freeing ourselves from stereotypes will help us identify all types of victims exploited through all forms of trafficking.

[i] Ted Talks (Producer). (2010, March 29). Kevin Bales: How to combat modern slavery [Video file]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUM2rCIUdeI

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