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Targeting vulnerable communities: public awareness of human trafficking must align with policies directly benefiting all victims and survivors

Public awareness campaigns have lots to say about sex trafficking, but often fail to reach communities directly impacted by trafficking or to complement programmes that help survivors.

Policy debate

Do the hidden costs outweigh the practical benefits?

We asked 10 people who work with human trafficking awareness the following: 'Campaigns to raise public awareness of human trafficking may have flaws, but their overall impact is positive. YES OR NO?'


Elena Shih & Joel Quirk

Elena Shih is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University.

Joel Quirk is Professor in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa).

Introduction: do the hidden costs outweigh the practical benefits of human trafficking awareness campaigns?


Anne Elizabeth Moore (NO)
Author of Threadbare: Clothes, Sex & Trafficking

Katherine Chon (YES)
Director, Office on Trafficking in Persons, US Dept. of Health and Human Services

Joanna Ewart-James (YES)
Advocacy Director at Walk Free

David Feingold (NO)
Director of the Ophidian Research Institute

Matthew Friedman (YES)
CEO for The Mekong Club

Zoe Trodd (NO)
University of Nottingham

Cris Sardina (NO)
Director of Desiree Alliance

Marilyn Murray (YES)
Creative Director at Love146

Sameera Hafiz (NO)
Advocacy Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance

Ima Matul (YES)
Survivor of Human Trafficking


Borislav Gerasimov (NO)
Advocacy Officer at Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women

Jamison Liang (YES)
Digital Programme Officer at IOM X

Kelli Lynn Johnson (NO)
Associate Professor, Miami University Hamilton

Dina Haynes (NO)
Professor, New England Law|Boston

Tryon P. Woods & P. Khalil Saucier (NO)
Assistant Professor, University of Massachusetts; Associate Professor, Rhode Island College

Lyndsey P. Beutin (NO)
Doctoral candidate, University of Pennsylvania

Whenever you do a Google search for ‘human trafficking’, the information that will come up will be dominated by material on sex trafficking. In many cases, this material will feature misleading and sometimes voyeuristic images of victims that are chained up or locked behind bars and wire. It is this messaging and imagery that provides a foundation for a majority of human trafficking awareness campaigns. This singular focus too often overlooks equally destructive trafficking crimes, such as debt bondage, domestic servitude, and child soldiers.

CAST/All rights reserved.

Earlier this year, I participated in a live twitter chat organised by UNICEF and the U.S Department of State. Building upon the hashtag #Everychildfree, this campaign is calculated to have reached four million unique Twitter accounts. While this initiative certainly generated an incredible amount of awareness about the sex trafficking of children, I believe that we nonetheless missed a huge opportunity to use this online event to actually reach vulnerable populations that are a disproportionately affected by all types of trafficking, such as immigrants, minorities, and LGBTQ communities. As an immigrant who was trafficked into the United States, the formula of #Everychildfree certainly would not have captured my attention.

It is therefore hugely important to both identify and expand ways of increasing awareness directly within vulnerable communities. At the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST), we recently did outreach to managers of check cashing establishments. These are important sites, because many undocumented workers go to cash checks since they do not have the identification papers to use many financial services. The goal of this campaign was to educate the managers on how to look for signs of human trafficking and set up cards and flyers with information and a 24-7 hotline number where people can get immediate help.

The language on the card was carefully crafted to be as accessible as possible, using phrases such as, “are you forced to work against your will? You have rights”. This message was created using input from survivors of human trafficking to help to ensure that it could be understood across cultures, and it was further translated into Mandarin, Tagalog, Korean, and Spanish. Equally importantly, there were no images of chains or cages, because victims are not enslaved only through physical restraint, but through force, threats, or sometimes just a lack of viable alternatives.

[We used] no images of chains or cages, because victims are not enslaved only through physical restraint.

Current awareness efforts also need to paired with a stronger investment in improving access to direct services. The number one challenge facing victims of trafficking is safe housing, including immediate, transitional, and long-term options. Many victims of trafficking must stay in shelters that were created for victims of domestic violence or other vulnerable groups. These shelters do not always know how to meet their unique needs. Some faith-based shelters require religious practice or conversion. Other shelters are open to sex trafficking survivors only. This type of exclusion in housing and other resources is often the result of awareness campaigns that highlight only sex trafficking crimes. These campaigns distort the true scope of human trafficking in the United States, limit the resources and services that are available to all victims, and lead to public policy initiatives that only protect and serve a small population of survivors.

Finally, it is important that we turn our campaigning and awareness efforts to protecting one of the most important pieces of legislation for the security of all victims of human trafficking in the United States. This is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). The TVPA has to be reauthorised every three years, and with so much opposition and negative messaging around immigration the next reauthorisation may be a political battle that is not as easily won. This is because the TVPA has immigration effects through the T-Visa and legal permanent residency provisions

While important steps have been taken already, current efforts could be further improved by grounding awareness campaigns in the realities of all forms of contemporary slavery, and are in turn designed to be of direct and lasting benefit to all potential victims and survivors.

About the author

Ima is the Survivor Coordinator for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST). Ima is a powerful speaker and advocate for the rights of immigrant laborers in the United States. She has participated in a number of speaking events at conferences and trainings all over the world, and she has met with state and federal legislators, officials, academics, and celebrities to promote survivor-centered legislation on the issue of human trafficking. Ima has received numerous awards for her leadership. In 2012, she was recognized by President Barack Obama as a hero in today’s abolitionist movement during the Clinton Global Initiative when he announced a major U.S. government initiative to combat modern-day slavery in the United States and abroad. In 2015, Ima was appointed to the first United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, and in 2016, Ima was invited to speak by Hillary Clinton at the National Democratic Convention on the issue of human trafficking.

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