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Human Trafficking: The Myths and the Realities

President Obama declared January National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, making now a great time to raise awareness, donate to an anti-trafficking organization, or get involved in a volunteer project to combat trafficking.

In order to make real change, though, we need to understand the issue—which is even larger and more complex than most people realize.

Through my experience researching human trafficking and migration in Asia, Africa, and North America, I’ve come to understand the origins, networks, and culture behind it. Most recently, I’ve worked with the Children’s Organization of Southeast Asia in Chiang Mai, Thailand, an organization that provides intervention, education, and empowerment opportunities in trafficking communities.

At first, I found the magnitude of the issue difficult to grasp: Trafficking occurs in nearly every country, and its networks are vast and formidable to investigate. According to the United Nations, there are between 27 and 30 million modern-day slaves in the world. And the U.S. State Department cites that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across borders every year. But these numbers are often under-reported and victims are usually hidden in the shadows, meaning that real, concrete statistics are often elusive.

It also means that there’s a lot of incorrect information out there. Everyone talks about human trafficking as a problem we need to tackle and eradicate, but to do so, we first need to separate the facts from fiction. Here are some of the most common trafficking myths, and the truth about what’s really happening.

Myth: Human Trafficking and Human Smuggling Are the Same

Though the two terms are often used interchangeably, human trafficking is not human smuggling. Trafficking is the recruiting, transporting, harboring, or receiving of a person through force in order to exploit him or her for prostitution, forced labor, or slavery. Human smuggling, on the other hand, is the transport of an individual from one destination to another, usually with his or her consent—for example, across a border.

It’s an important distinction—and one that must be clear in order for law enforcement and policymakers to properly address each issue.

Myth: Most Traffickers Are What the Movies Show You

A couple of years ago, while sitting at dinner in a trafficking village, I realized that traffickers are not always powerful gangsters the way mainstream movies like Taken tend to portray them. Trafficking occurs in a wide range of socioeconomic classes, and the people involved could be anyone—there’s no one type of trafficker. In some villages I visited, the traffickers were politicians and local law enforcement. In other parts of the world, they’re businessmen or restaurateurs.

While organized crime plays a large role in global human trafficking, communities, local governments, and even families are often involved in the process, too. Many times, it’s strictly about economics—those who sell their children are not “evil” or “bad” people, they simply feel that they have no other choice.

Myth: Human Trafficking Only Refers to Forced Prostitution

I met a nine-year-old girl from a local Hill Tribe in Thailand who wasn’t going to school. Instead, she was building one—her family was so poor that she was forced into laying bricks for many hours a day. She is free from this life now, but there are thousands of children throughout the world still forced in to this type of labor. Human trafficking does not always equal prostitution—it can include indentured servitude, other exploitation in the workforce (in factories or on farms), and even the organ trade.

Myth: Only Women Are Trafficked

Men and young boys are also trafficked, and they often get much less attention then trafficked women do. In part, that’s because it’s very difficult to get young boys out of trafficking, especially sex work, because the activity generates the kind of quick money that cannot be made anywhere else. Men and boys often remain invisible in the trafficking dialogue, or it is assumed they are only trafficked for labor. The short film Underage by photographer Ohm Phanphiroj reveals the struggles of young men trapped in the sex industry in Bangkok.

Myth: Everyone Trafficked is Kidnapped or Deceived

When women in places like Ukraine respond to ads for entertainment or waitressing jobs, they risk falling in with sham placement agencies that may confiscate their documents and force them into sex work. Or, an uncle in Vietnam may tell his niece she’s going away to work at a restaurant, when in fact, she will be shipped to a brothel.

But other times, trafficking victims clearly understand the situations they’re entering and know they will be exploited. They choose to go anyway because they believe they will ultimately profit. Some make the choice to be trafficked because of the lack of jobs within their communities. In other cases, poor families will send their own daughters into sex work or labor for the lucrative one-time pay-off, as well as the potential for more in the future—once a trafficked person pays off her “debt” (the travel and document fees traffickers tell their victims that they owe), she can begin to earn profit.

In fact, many villages use the world trafficking interchangeably with “working.” When some sex workers or factory workers return to the village after “working” in the city, they build large houses and appear “rich” after working, even though their type of work and hardship isn't discussed. As a result, others in the community strive for similar material gain and continue the trafficking cycle.

But know that when children are involved in sex work or labor, they have not made that choice for themselves. That is always human trafficking.

Myth: Trafficking Only Happens in Other Countries, Not in the United States

While trafficking is often thought of as something that happens across international borders, it also happens in America—every single day. According to Polaris Project, there are 100,000 to 300,000 children prostituted in America and many more at risk. (You can learn how to identify a trafficking victim at the State Department website.)

While it’s daunting—and at times depressing—to attempt to understand human trafficking on a global and local level, it’s also empowering. Once you know the realities of human trafficking, you’re better prepared to raise awareness and start taking action.

The Daily Muse’s Human Trafficking Series

Part 1: Human Trafficking: The Myths and the Realities

Part 2: The Fight for Freedom: 7 Organizations Combatting Human Trafficking

Part 3: Take Action: 7 Ways to Join the Fight Against Human Trafficking

Photo courtesy of mrhayata.