Many civil society organizations who boycotted the White House Summit had voiced their harsh criticism of the U.S. government, including for having exerted more scrutiny of T-visa applicants, an immigration status that allows certain victims of human trafficking to remain and work temporarily in the United States—typically if they work with law enforcement and agree to help in the investigation.
“This administration is undermining protections carefully built for trafficking victims over two decades,” said Martina Vandenberg, founder of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, quoted in a Washington Post article.
This comes at a time when global statistics on human trafficking are on the rise: every day thousands of women, men and children are trafficked worldwide for various exploitative purposes. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are currently 25 million victims of human trafficking around the world.
Human trafficking is an issue for all countries and communities. Importantly (and surprising for many), human trafficking does not necessarily involve the crossing of international borders. For example, the Ontario member of parliament, Laurie Scott, admits to having been shocked to learn that 90% of the local human sex trafficked victims were Canadian-born as featured in the Toronto Film Fest documentary Girl Up.
Also not intuitive for many is the fact that women make up the largest proportion of traffickers. In some parts of the world, women trafficking women is the norm according to the 2017 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which covers 155 countries.
Globally, governments and civil society have increased their efforts to combat human trafficking. What is clear is that governments cannot address this issue alone and rely on the private sector and civil society organization to join forces and scale-up solutions.
Why have these public-private partnership strategies proven to be successful? It turns out, human trafficking often involves the legitimate services of the banking system, transportation companies, the hospitality business, health care providers, and digital social media platforms.
The Business of Human Trafficking
The motive of traffickers—regardless of the type of human trafficking they are engaged in—is clear: money! Annually, the business of human trafficking globally generates an estimated $150 billion in profits according to the ILO.
According to Polaris (the nonprofit organization that runs the national human trafficking hotline in the United States and which also boycotted the White House Summit), examples for private sector involvement in human trafficking are abundant: traffickers use banks to deposit and launder their earnings; they use planes, buses and taxi services to transport their victims; they book hotel rooms integral also to sex trafficking; and, they are active users of social media platforms to recruit and advertise the services of their victims.
“Human trafficking is a $150 billion a year global industry and can’t be fully addressed without businesses taking active and effective measures to reduce the potential for exploitation within their own systems.”
While many human trafficking activities remain underground, an increased understanding of how human traffickers use legitimate services has helped companies in various industries begin to crack the business of human trafficking. In many instances, private sector initiated efforts to combat human trafficking (often as part of their corporate social responsibility activities) have also helped companies position themselves as “service provider of choice.”
The examples below provide only a glimpse into how private sector actors have started combatting human trafficking.
The banking sector
Traffickers often help trafficked individuals open bank accounts and/or apply for credit cards. They use banks and money remittance services to funnel money—often large amounts of cash. Moreover, traffickers frequently accompany victims to financial institutions to monitor the transaction and structure deposits to fall just under thresholds which could trigger investigation by the financial institutions.
To limit their interactions with traditional financial institutions, traffickers often revert to a growing use of virtual currencies like bitcoin, which can foster a conducive environment for laundering money from criminal activity. Yet, computer analysts have pioneered techniques that provide new insights into human-trafficking networks.
Over the past years financial institutions have done significant analysis to detect trafficking operations. The industry, including through the Lichtenstein Initiative, understands that they can help combat human trafficking through tougher fiscal investigations, more coordinated freezing of criminal assets and expanded digital payrolls. In 2014 the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network issued an advisory that included a list of potential indicators of trafficking.
In practice, financial institutions such as U.S. Bank are taking action. For example, they had learned that traffickers often move victims into localities of mega sport events to take advantage of the influx of partying visitors (including the American football Super Bowl). So when the 2018 Super Bowl took place at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota, the bank put their financial intelligence and anti-money laundering capabilities to work to “help law enforcement tackle the sex trafficking surge” according to the ABA Banking Journal.
What did U.S. Bank learn? Cited red flags for banking staff included customers being accompanied by someone who appears to control them; individuals having multiple accounts in their own name; heavy use of cash; multiple simultaneous charges on ride-hailing services (which sex traffickers are said to prefer over taxis because the traffickers can track their victims’ rides in real-time via the app); and multiple simultaneous hotel room charges.
And then there were the charges that bank officers won’t see in a typical account associated with sex trafficking: no utility payments, no purchases related to hobbies, or mortgage payments.
The hotel industry
According to research by Polaris, traffickers don’t always look for the cheapest hotels. They choose locations based on convenience, buyer comfort, price, hotel policies and procedures. An important decision making point for traffickers often is whether the establishment is likely to be collaborating with potential law enforcement. Hence, hotel chain franchises often are traffickers’ preferred choice as they offer a sense of anonymity and safety.
Cited red flags for hotel staff include extended stays of customers with few possessions; multiple rooms under one name; someone waits onsite (e.g. in parking lot); room is booked with business card but is paid in cash; excessive foot traffic in and out of rooms.
What are hotels doing to combat human trafficking in practice? Take the example of Marriott International, which globally rolled out human trafficking awareness training for more than 500,000 employees since 2017. Efforts by the hotel chain are also underway to educate hotel customers to help identify and report suspicious human trafficking activities. What’s more, efforts have been made to provide potential victims with information on how to access help. Moreover, Marriott International created a program with the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery with the objective to prepare trafficked survivors for careers in the hospitality industry.
The health care sector
There is growing evidence on the range of health consequences faced by individuals who have experienced human trafficking. This can include sexual and reproductive health issues, mental health concerns, on-the-job injuries caused by unsafe working conditions, and issues related to substance use. In fact, research suggests that traffickers often seek out drug rehabilitation centers as well as behavioral and mental health centers to recruit their victims, given their potential vulnerability to becoming dependent and being controlled.
Hotline data and survey evidence indicates that the health care industry can be a larger player in identifying, treating, and responding appropriately to individuals who are at risk or who have been trafficked.
What are health care providers doing to combat human trafficking? To respond more effectively to increasing human trafficking incidents, the Postgraduate Institute for Medicine, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as well as the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Center, designed an online training course to educate health care providers, social workers, public health professionals, and behavioral health professionals. The target audience includes physicians, pharmacists, registered nurses, dentists, psychologists, social workers, case managers, school counselors, and other health professionals.
Getting trafficked persons back on track
Having endured trauma, often lacking self-confidence and having very limited access to resources, survivors can easily end up back in situations of exploitation if they cannot turn to a strong support system. Thus, job readiness efforts by potential employers and access to financial resources can be critical to survivors of human trafficking.
A recently launched United Nations Hope for Justice Initiative in partnership with leading banks from Austria, Canada, Great Britain and the United States, offers survivors of human trafficking accounts and debit cards—financial service products that can provide survivors with a life line, especially if their captors stole their financial identity or ruined their credit. The concept of offering survivors banking services was pioneered by HSBC in Britain, and is part of the Lichtenstein Initiative to harness the power of the global financial industry to combat human trafficking.
Not being able to pay for reliable transport services can also be a huge obstacle for survivors to leave their trafficking situation or to enable trafficked persons to return to a location of safety. Airline tickets can particularly be costly. Delta Air Lines’ SkyWish Program is an example of how a company leverages its resources in partnership with its customers and employees to help break cycles of abuse and ensure survivors have access to flight tickets and a way out.
At the White House Summit, the U.S. president signed an executive order meant to combat human trafficking and online child exploitation, including by adding a new position at the White House to focus on the issue. Irrespectively of governments’ plans and policies, the private sector can play a larger role in addressing the issue. What’s more, as customers each one of us can encourage financial service providers, hotels, health care companies and transportation providers in our communities to join forces.
Public-private sector action can ensure that victims of human trafficking are not left voiceless and don’t remain unseen by society.