Human Trafficking and Healthcare: Using a Public Health Approach to Combat and Prevent Human Trafficking

Human Trafficking and Healthcare: Using a Public Health Approach to Combat and Prevent Human Trafficking

By Nathnael Mengistie

According to the International Labor Organization, human trafficking is the act of controlling or exploiting a person for sex, labor, or other services through fraud, force, or coercion. This grave human rights violation affected an estimated 20.9 million or more individuals worldwide in 2016. In recent years, however, numerous countries, including the United States, have passed different laws to combat this issue. In fact, on January 9th 2019, President Donald Trump signed into law the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), a law that aims to prevent human trafficking, protect victims, and punish offenders not only in the US, but also abroad. This legislation was first passed in 2000 and has since been expanded and reauthorized numerous times. This landmark anti-trafficking law formed the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which publishes a yearly Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), and it also established the T-visa, which allows trafficking victims who came from outside the US to become permanent residents. Furthermore, the current administration has also authorized $430 million to fight human trafficking and passed additional laws, such as the Abolish Human Trafficking Act, which increases the prosecution of traffickers. Although these efforts are certainly commendable, American law regarding human trafficking still focuses on prosecution and fails to recognize the importance of a victim-centered approach to end this heinous crime. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics stated that there was a 41% increase in the number of prosecutions for human trafficking offenses from 2011 to 2015, which illustrates the government’s focus on the criminal justice aspect of human trafficking. Although it is important to prosecute traffickers, members of the anti-trafficking movement should also focus on identifying human trafficking victims and providing long term support to human trafficking survivors. One of the reasons why this is not the case is because it is challenging to identify trafficking victims due to the obscure nature of the crime.  Nevertheless, framing human trafficking as a public health issue and increasing the involvement of healthcare professionals will not only allow us to identify trafficking victims and empower survivors, but also help us address the socio-economic determinants that facilitate human trafficking by working with policy makers, clinical professionals, law enforcement, and educators because human trafficking is a multifaceted problem. By using a public health approach to combat human trafficking and collaborating with different professionals, we are increasing our scope and our reach because public health is concerned with the well-being of entire populations and not just specific individuals.

According to a 2014 study doneby the Beazley Institute for Health Law and Policy, nearly 90% of trafficking survivors come in contact with a healthcare professional at some point during their time of being trafficked. When trafficking victims, who are in the process of being trafficked, go to a hospital or a clinic to seek medical care, they are more willing to share their problems and concerns because they are facing a medical crisis, in comparison to when spoken to outside of a medical context. Numerous studieshave proven that trafficking victims are less likely to give personal information to authority figures such as police officers or lawyers, but they will talk to clinicians and other medical professionals because they know that they will not get medical help if they stay silent. Thus, healthcare providers have a unique opportunity to provide a space of trust and safety, but they must be trained to respond quickly should they encounter a situation they believe may be related to human trafficking. Unfortunately, only a few states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Michigan have adopted mandatory education programs on trafficking for health care providers. New Jersey’s Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection, and Treatment Act,which requires the Health Department to “develop, approve, and provide for a one-time training course on the handling and response procedures of suspected human trafficking activities for employees of every licensed health care facility,” is serving as a baseline model for other state legislatures. This approach has been quite successful because incidents of human trafficking have been steadily decreasing in New Jersey.

Healthcare professionals not only play an important role as first responders, but they are also crucial in the long-term rehabilitation process of trafficking survivors. The physical and psychological health consequences of human trafficking are severe, which is why trafficking survivors may need counseling and therapy until they fully recover. Furthermore, a public health approach to human trafficking will effectively engage trafficking survivors to eradicate the socio-economic causes and consequences of human trafficking, which is vital to the development of a more sustainable solution to human trafficking. For instance, LGBT youth are far more likely to be victims of human trafficking because they are disproportionately runaway or homeless. A public health approach will try to reduce the risk of homelessness of LGBT youth by engaging policy makers, social workers, educators, and most importantly, trafficking survivors. It is important to note that survivors play a key role in this process because they understand the different dimensions of human trafficking and can give advice on what steps to take to improve the current situation.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine alone and do not represent the views of the Princeton Public Health Review.





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