Human trafficking is the act of compelling someone to work, for little or no pay, through force, fraud, or coercion. It is a multidimensional problem that disproportionately impacts marginalized communities across the United States and around the world. While human trafficking can happen anywhere, systemic injustices like racism, homophobia, sexism, economic inequality, and more lead some people to face more risk of human trafficking than others.
While traffickers take advantage of the vulnerabilities created by these systemic inequities year-round, disasters, whether man-made or natural, have the potential to increase an individual's vulnerability to human trafficking. Man-made disasters include political conflict, war, and terrorism. Natural disasters typically refer to the effects of climate change and extreme weather events such as droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods. Disasters exacerbate vulnerabilities to human trafficking by creating problems such as displacement, public infrastructure failure, financial strain, and emotional distress.
The World Bank has found that individuals displaced due to man-made or natural disasters are likely to lose assets, livelihood, and the ability to plan their future. They may also experience trauma and be at a greater risk of gender-based violence. Additionally, the disruption caused by disasters can have compounding effects. Displacement can present challenges for host governments and communities by straining their ability to deliver services and infrastructure. Without proper access to supportive services, community members’ basic needs – such as emergency shelter, food provisions, and healthcare – may go unmet. When people are most in need, they are also most vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers.
A recent example of this can be seen in and around Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine quickly caused the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the end of World War Two. In the early months of the war, the United Nations found that many of the refugees fleeing Ukraine experienced various forms of violence and exploitation, including human trafficking. Now in the second year of this war, traffickers are still taking advantage of forcibly displaced individuals' increased vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities will increase as coping capacities are stretched and strained over time.
Recognizing the importance of supporting both those who are displaced and the communities receiving them, local United Ways and partners in Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Germany responded to the war in Ukraine with innovative community-based programs. United Way Romania created an emergency fund to provide necessary resources for the tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees who have been forced to migrate to Romania. The fund still accepts sponsorships and individual donations today. Similarly, United Way Hungary collaborated with CalmSchool to launch a program to provide emotional support to Ukrainian children who were forced to flee their homes. This program aims to provide support to volunteers, civic organizations, charities, and local governments that assist refugees. Through these programs, these local United Ways are meeting the needs of people at risk of human trafficking.
Like man-made crises such as war and political unrest, natural disasters have also been shown to increase the risk of human trafficking among impacted populations. Hurricane Katrina caused an increase in human trafficking in the affected areas. This increase was caused by massive displacement and financial instability, coupled with a relaxation of labor and immigration regulations due to damaged infrastructure and economic need. More than 3,750 survivors of human trafficking were identified following Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst storms ever to hit the U.S. (though the true breadth of the issue was surely far greater.) Hazardous working conditions and low salaries often make disaster recovery work unattractive to many U.S. citizens, but much of the migrant labor force recruited was subjected to forced labor. False promises of good jobs, safe working conditions, and green cards turned into situations wherein migrants were forced to take out loans from recruiters to cover immigration fees and travel costs. These situations subjected the workers to forced debt bondage, a form of human trafficking.
Individuals forcibly displaced by Hurricane Katrina were also at increased risk of human trafficking. Destruction of homes and communities is known to increase local individuals’ risk of both sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Researchers believe the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was no exception and that many displaced residents in the affected areas were also targeted by traffickers.
United Way of Southeast Louisiana in New Orleans, LA provides support to their community before, during and after all disasters – including addressing basic needs (e.g., food, clothing, temporary shelter, and medical support). After disasters, they provide services for more complex needs such as mental health services and quality childcare. In the wake of Hurricane Ida recently, United Way worked with community partners to provide meals, essential supplies, gift cards, and free civil legal aid to vulnerable households. These services aid community members in regaining financial stability and rebuilding their lives. This stability reduces an individual’s vulnerabilities that can be exploited by traffickers.
The work of United Way illustrates our global Network’s unique ability to strengthen community resilience to both human trafficking and disasters. Through programs that support the health, education, and economic mobility of all community members, local United Ways address the root causes of injustice and reduce vulnerabilities. Likewise, United Ways are uniquely positioned to intervene when disasters occur. They provide on-the-ground disaster response, including raising funds, providing resources like food, water, and shelter, mobilizing volunteers, and engaging local partners to ensure community stability. Approaching all work with an intersectional lens strengthens the impact and makes communities more resilient.
In honor of World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, we encourage our United Way Network and community partners around the world to consider this intersectionality and find ways to integrate disaster resilience and anti-trafficking efforts into existing workstreams. This could include efforts such as:
- Partnering with local survivor-run organizations to learn about the issue of human trafficking in your local community and identify gaps in services for vulnerable populations;
- Educating community members about human trafficking and the ways in which disasters may exacerbate risks;
- Providing support and resources to those who are most likely to be vulnerable to both human trafficking and disasters;
- Incorporating anti-trafficking awareness materials into disaster relief resources, as well as health, education, and economic mobility programming; and
- Raising funds specifically for survivors and vulnerable populations, particularly in the wake of disasters.
There are, of course, many other ways to engage in this work. We encourage you to learn more about United Way’s anti-human trafficking work here and disaster resilience efforts here. You can also learn more about these issues via the resources below:
- The Climate Change – Human Trafficking Nexus (International Organization for Migration)
- Understanding Human Trafficking in Conflict (Council on Foreign Relations)
- Conflict in Ukraine: Key Evidence on Risks of Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants (UNODC)
- Trafficking Prevention and Disaster Response (National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Center)
- Human Trafficking Helps Terrorists Earn Money and Strategic Advantage (Foreign Policy)
- Conflict, climate change among factors that increase ‘desperation that enables human trafficking to flourish’, says UN chief (UN News)