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.

How does disaster relief counseling work?

In 1974, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (the “Stafford Act”) tasked the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) with developing a Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program (CCP). The CCP funding supports community-based outreach, counseling, and other mental health services to survivors of natural and human-caused disasters.

Over 40 years of CCP activities, the program has trained community responders in identifying those survivors who might be at higher risk of developing significant mental health or substance misuse concerns. The reason that some populations are in the high-risk category vary and include people:

  • who lost a loved one or experienced an injury during the event;
  • who have prior disaster or traumatic event experience;
  • with a previously diagnosed mental illness or other medical concerns;
  • with access or functional needs/limited mobility;
  • who are isolated or without social supports; and
  • who are in a lower socioeconomic status without resources to assist them in recovery.

More recently, the issue of human trafficking in the aftermath of disasters has surfaced as a concern.

How does human trafficking happen?

Human trafficking typically occurs in two ways.

The first is labor trafficking. In these situations, false rebuilding or construction jobs are often advertised on social media. Offers of work come with perks that may be too good to be true, such as “free” immigration assistance or extravagant wages. In reality, workers are charged high fees to live in “shelters” and begin work.

The second is sex trafficking, where survivors are coerced into staying at a stranger’s home instead of a shelter, or offered opportunities to make quick money to “help support family” and get back on their feet. Both of these scenarios involve the use of non-consensual sexual activities and either the threat of or actual additional violence to maintain power over the victim.

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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.

ICF continues working with this group of experts in a range of areas. We encourage disaster responders to be informed about the risk of post-incident human trafficking and provide survivors with resources they can use to report these crimes and support disaster survivors’ behavioral health. We are working with emergency medical providers (e.g., those deployed to medical shelters) to help them learn the signs of trafficking, and build relationships with community leaders and residents.

What are the next steps to mitigating human trafficking after disasters?

SAMHSA client and behavioral health providers and state disaster behavioral health coordinators are the first line of defense against human trafficking after disasters. We are working to ensure the inclusion of information regarding trafficking recruitment practices in responder training.

Responders need to know where the at-risk populations are located and build relationships with leaders in those communities in order to proactively conduct outreach. Print materials with information about trafficking, the tactics that traffickers use, and national referral resources such as the National Human Trafficking Hotline and the Unaccompanied Minor Registry for reunification are now available to disaster medical responders.

Once a high-risk population is identified, information about addressing the needs and reducing or eliminating the potential for trafficking should be included in all responder training and conferences. Using this information, responders from all disciplines—not just behavioral health staff—can join forces to identify and aid affected populations in the aftermath of a disaster.