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Why We Need a Public Health Campaign Against Trafficking
March 30, 2015

News article


Human trafficking, modern day slavery, sexual servitude, and the transnational abuses of humans have been on the public agenda of many governments and law enforcement agencies for well over a decade—and yet, what has come of it? Despite growing attention to the problem, we haven’t really seen an accompanying decrease in human trafficking globally. This means we need to think more broadly about prevention.

I recently came across a 2011 article published in North Carolina Law Review by Jonathan Todres that made a compelling argument for the need of a public health approach to human trafficking (You can access the article here). As Todres argues, we need to reshape public thinking about human trafficking and reframe it as a public health concern. There are several reasons we need to do so. For example:

–           Trafficking exacts an exorbitant toll on its victims: ranging from incredible physical and mental abuse and trauma suffered, injuries on the job, deteriorating health from living in squalid conditions and working incredibly long hours, exposure to diseases like HIV/AIDS, and long term effects suffered well after escape from these conditions, such as PTSD and anxiety, depression, and heart disease. Even if we consider these to be primarily individual effects, there are heavy societal costs in providing health care to these individuals.

–           Trafficked sex workers are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and can then transmit these diseases to their clients, who may subsequently pass the diseases on to partners at home. Clients are often travelers, truck drivers, and the like, so disease spreads across borders.

–           Because trafficked individuals (both in sex trades and factories) often work in squalor and poor health conditions, these environments tend to become breeding grounds for a variety of infectious diseases. Given that an estimated 20.9 million people worldwide are current victims of trafficking, it becomes all the easier for disease to spread.

While a law enforcement approach seeks to help victims, it does not help prevent the problem in the first place. As the article argues, just as vaccine programs seek to immunize populations before a disease hits so as to prevent suffering, so must we try to protect people before they ever become victims at all. By framing human trafficking as a public health concern, we can harness the power of a multidisciplinary approach to prevention. This means we can and should mobilize advocates in a variety of sectors to collaborate in combating modern day slavery.

What would a public health approach look like? Here are some ideas:

–           Educate health care professionals (doctors, nurses, dentists, etc.) to recognize signs of a trafficking situation. Approximately half of children trafficked reported needing health care at some point while they were trafficked, and about a third of those reported seeing a doctor or nurse as a result. If health care professionals can identify potential victims, they can help alert authorities. If they are also educated about risk factors, they can help keep tabs on those patients.

–           If populations who are regularly in contact with sex trade operations (like travelers—even johns who come across child prostitutes—and truck drivers) are educated about signs of a victim of trafficking and how to alert authorities, they can also be a key figure in getting victims help.

–       Even sex workers may be useful advocates if the stigma and risk of themselves being implicated is removed.

–           Policies that promote the documentation of vulnerable populations (such as birth certificates, social security identification, etc.) will help protect those most at-risk. The undocumented are so much more vulnerable because no one will notice when they disappear.

Preventing human trafficking does not need to be just the purview of law enforcement officials and aid agencies. If governments continue to fail or fall short, it is incumbent upon society to rise up and take advantage of all the resources at our disposal and find help wherever we can get it. We don’t need to work alone. It’s time we reach out to advocates wherever they may be.

— Dr. Jade Keller

Education Program Manager

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