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How Natural Disasters can Affect Human Trafficking

Feb 20, 2019 5 MIN. READ

Human traffickers capitalize on natural disasters to recruit victims. How can we stop nefarious groups from taking advantage of these dire circumstances?

Picture this: you live outside of the U.S. in challenging conditions, and you and your loved ones struggle with basic expenses—food, shelter, and clothing. A disaster strikes a major U.S. city, and you hear there are job opportunities in the construction business. They promise you a temporary visa and free food and housing.

The pay dwarfs what you make in your home country. You kiss your loved ones goodbye and begin your voyage. Upon arrival, your “sponsor” demands you hand over your identification and other paperwork for “safekeeping.” You arrive at your new “home,” which is a hotel room you will share with eight other people. The work is nonstop, the pay is nonexistent, and you realize there is nowhere to turn.

This is a common story for victims of labor trafficking in the wake of a disaster.

One of the primary principles of disaster behavioral health response is understanding that everyone exposed to a disaster is touched by it in some way. Even if they avoid physical harm, the experience will change them in some respect.

In accepting this principle, there is then a fundamental responsibility to try to identify all of the people exposed to the event in order to help mitigate the development of adverse mental health responses.

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How have disaster relief organizations responded?

In response, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office on Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) convened a group of experts from a variety of relevant fields to discuss the increased risk of trafficking associated with disaster recovery. This collective sought to develop an understanding of the nature of trafficking and examine relevant U.S. laws concerning disaster preparation, response, and recovery.

The group collaborated to identify tools and resources to prevent, assess, identify, and respond to trafficking after a disaster. They also developed a strategy to encourage communities to use these materials to bolster disaster-specific anti-trafficking efforts.

What they found is that survivors and those at risk of human trafficking need coordinated and trauma-informed services before, during, and after their trafficking exploitation, regardless of their age, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, or type of exploitation.