Hidden in Plain Sight

A 28-year-old Mexican woman, “Maria”, has felt severe abdominal pain but was never seen by a doctor. She has a large ovarian tumor. During the course of multiple hospital visits, doctor asks Maria how long she has been feeling this pain. Three to four years, she answers. But why did she wait so long to seek help, the doctor asks me incredulously as he does not speak Spanish. Because, I answer, she is a trafficking victim who only recently escaped from the control of her traffickers.

Human trafficking victims in the United States are both foreign-born and U.S. citizens. Women who came to the United States because they were promised a life of opportunity and upward mobility had no idea that they would be forced into prostitution for months or years. Uneducated, unable to read or write in their native language, and coming from extremely poor villages, they are vulnerable to traffickers. While traffickers used physical force to maintain their control, they also used threats of violence against their victims’ families and the threat of deportation as invisible restraints.

All of these factors make it difficult for victims as they try to reenter mainstream society. Although they have escaped from the immediate dangers of their trafficking situation, every day my clients face obstacles that make it difficult for them to obtain essential services. They are often turned away from receiving services to which they are entitled because the social service providers they regularly come in contact with have no idea that trafficking exists or what it means. This lack of awareness is dangerous because it allows traffickers to flourish and continue operating in plain sight within the United States. Trafficking victims often times do not self-identify as such, which is another reason why it is difficult for them to seek help independently.

Victims may have a hard time speaking out because of language barriers. Take some time to acquaint yourself with common trafficking indicators. In the meantime, if you come into contact with someone you believe may be a trafficking victim, important questions to consider include: Is the victim in possession of his or her identification and travel documents? Was the victim recruited to engage in one type of work and forced to engage in another? Was the victim forced to perform sexual acts, is that victim a minor, is the victim able to move around freely? Is the victim able to contact friends and family? Has the victim been threatened with deportation or other action?

Current and future victims of trafficking depend on our increased awareness so that we might one day spot them in plain sight and help free them from their bondage.

Learn more at Ilana Herr’s Huffington Post article: Hidden in Plain Sight: A Story of Human Trafficking.

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