Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Look beneath the surface: a public health approach to raising awareness and ending human trafficking

To be truly effective, public awareness campaigns must be combined with calls to action, such as the successful Rescue and Restore Campaign, which offers crucial insights in the fight to end human trafficking.

Katherine Chon
20 June 2019, 7.23pm
Poster from the Look Beneath the Surface campaign by the Office on Trafficking in Persons, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Public awareness campaigns have been effective at increasing victim identification and more strategic efforts can lead to other successful outcomes. The political will to combat human trafficking in the United States has been a strongly bipartisan effort since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. Most recently, U.S. President Barack Obama proclaimed January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is responding to the proclamation’s call by launching the Look Beneath the Surfacesocial media campaign and continuing to work with our federal partners to implement the Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services to Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States.

The Look Beneath the Surface campaign is built on the success of HHS’ Rescue and Restore Victims of Human Trafficking campaign, launched in April 2004 to support the implementation of the TVPA. The goal of HHS’ first public awareness campaign was to help communities identify and serve victims of trafficking and aid law enforcement. In its first five years, the Rescue and Restore campaign generated 200 million media impressions throughout the country with a focus on altering the media’s coverage of human trafficking from solely an international problem to a domestic problem. The campaign provided reporter guidelines to maintain victim security and promote ethical communication. The campaign also recruited more than 1,000 local and 75 national partners and formed coalitions in 19 cities. The design and impact of the campaign was recognised with more than 10 industry awards, including the prestigious Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America.

One critical factor that contributed to the success of the Rescue and Restore campaign was a clear call to action. The HHS campaign, along with many other government and non-government public awareness efforts, pointed the public to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline for help. Since 2007, the hotline received 138,000 calls from the community, leading to the identification of more than 33,000 cases of human trafficking reported from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories. Annual increases in the number of identified victims (see Figure 1) signal that more people are becoming aware of human trafficking and taking action. Callers learned about the hotline from a variety of sources, including internet searches, referrals, prior knowledge, the Department of State Know Your Rights Pamphlet, and word of mouth as the most common referrals to the hotline in fiscal year (FY) 2016.

Another critical factor to the success of the Rescue and Restorecampaign was the existence of community resources to implement activities to reach campaign goals. In conjunction with the public awareness efforts, HHS provided grants to organisations to conduct outreach to identify victims of trafficking and provide comprehensive services to survivors. HHS also worked to leverage many other federal resources, including coordination with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to connect the public with DOJ-funded human trafficking task forces and grantees.

Figure 1. Annual number of cases of human trafficking reported into the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Figure by author. All rights reserved.

In FY 2016, the hotline connected 8,711 individuals to services, including top-requested services for emergency shelter, victim extraction, crisis case management, transportation, and medical assistance. The hotline referred 1,529 tips to law enforcement trained on human trafficking. Investigations were opened in at least 668 cases by the end of the year. That year, HHS anti-trafficking grantees served more than 2,300 victims of trafficking and family members through a network of 241 sites in 39 states (a 40% increase from the number of clients served in the prior year).

A recent Gallup household survey found that only 7% of Americans were aware of the National Human Trafficking Hotline, signalling that the annual increases in the number of victims identified, survivors served, and investigations opened represent only a fraction of the potential impact that broader public awareness can have. Therefore, HHS is building on the success of the original Rescue and Restorecampaign by launching the Look Beneath the Surface campaign. The new campaign includes the original goals from the earlier campaign, but takes a public health approach to responding to human trafficking. For example, the Look Beneath the Surface campaign:

Poster from the Look Beneath the Surface campaign by the Office on Trafficking in Persons.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Recognises that human trafficking impacts whole populations and not just individuals. The campaign will go beyond the stories of individual victimisation and will raise awareness about how families, communities, and even industries are impacted by human trafficking. The campaign will provide information on the role of consumers and the demand contributing to labour and sex trafficking and bring greater attention to the public health consequences of human trafficking.

Strategically partners with high-risk populations to prevent human trafficking. Human trafficking can happen to anyone, but certain populations are at disproportionate risk for trafficking. The campaign will disseminate information to communities working with individuals who have experienced child abuse, survivors of gender-based violence and sexual assault, disconnected and homeless adults and youth, American Indians and Alaska Natives, and migrants fleeing conflict and disasters.

Reflects the comprehensive scope of human trafficking. Human trafficking impacts any gender, age, race, nationality, and sexual orientation and occurs across a wide range of legal and illicit industries through labour and commercial sexual exploitation. The new campaign will provide the public with more images on the diverse representation of survivors and portray multiple forms of human trafficking. The campaign will also continue to dispel common myths and monitor whether grantees are serving previously under-reported types of cases.

Empowers survivors of human trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Hotline has received more than 15,700 calls directly from survivors of trafficking, with annual increases since 2008 (see Figure 2). The hotline data indicate that public awareness messages are decreasing barriers to help-seeking. Survivors informed the new campaign, are represented in campaign materials, and provided additional recommendations for federal public awareness through the US Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.

Figure 2. Annual number of calls from survivors of human trafficking to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Figure by author. All rights reserved.

Public awareness cannot occur in a vacuum, but must be combined with a robust national hotline or other calls to action, the development of local community capacity, and rigorous data analysis to monitor the effectiveness of the campaigns. Strategically implemented public awareness informed by survivors can also lead to improved government policies, positive changes in behavioural and social norms that currently facilitate trafficking, and identification of root causes to ultimately prevent modern forms of slavery.


This series has been produced with support from Brown University's Center for the Study of Slavery and Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.

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