We’re all familiar with the streams of humanity created by natural and man-made disasters. Our newsfeeds are flooded with stories from remote areas of the world and the border of our own country. The direct threats from this kind of suffering take center stage in the images we see. Homelessness, starvation, and disease threaten the lives of victims every day. What might not be less apparent is the connection between forced migration and modern slavery. Breaking the connection between disaster and human bondage by ending the cycle of pain can save lives in ways that might not be obvious to the uninitiated.
The Links between Disaster and Slavery
Large scale violence has the power to cripple society. Whether we’re talking about floods in Indonesia, hurricanes in Texas or bombing campaigns in Syria, those left alive are forced out of their homes and away from their families with little or no material possessions or access to resources. When faced with extreme poverty, discrimination, and social isolation, desperation drives every decision. This is when organized crime steps in to take advantage of the situation in the following ways:
- Slavers posing at aid workers or humanitarians offer salvation with no proof of their intentions and lure victims into sexual slavery and forced labor.
- Official relief workers take advantage of their position to abuse, rape and sell the most vulnerable among us.
- Family members are complicit in the selling of women and children into slavery. While some might do it as a desperate attempt to save their loved ones, others capitalize on a hopeless situation by trading “lesser” members of society for cash.
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, women and children make up the bulk of modern slaves and the majority of the work they are forced into is sexual slavery. However, these statistics are often disputed because of the clandestine nature of the crimes and because the definition of sex work versus sex slavery is difficult to differentiate in this context. If a woman who lost her home in a flood agrees to stay with a man in exchange for sex, did she choose to engage in sex work or was the decision forced on her? I’ve argued before that the difference between sex slavery and sex work is based on agency and choice, but in dire circumstances, “choice” might be a relative concept.
Protecting Victims on a Macro Level
The situation of a refugee is precarious in terms of both her immediate need for food, medicine and shelter, on top of the threat of human trafficking, so the most beneficial way to help her is to reduce the frequency of the disasters that create the problem in the first place, including:
- Voting for policies and leaders who will combat the underlying causes of forced migration can, over time, alter the circumstances that cause the problem in the first place.
- Providing more liberal immigration policies in times of natural disasters and war can reduce the number of vulnerable migrants who might attempt illegal immigration and get caught up in slavery.
- Treating refugees as people and not political tools to further a nationalist agenda can keep vulnerable people out of the slavery system.
- Using modern technology to track both children and organized crime groups before a crisis to prevent victims from disappearing without being noticed by protective government services.
Protecting Victims on a Micro Level
As individuals, we can’t end slavery as an institution. As I’ve written before, slavery is the original sin of humanity, but while we can’t end all slavery, we do have the chance to help and support individual slaves.
Since slaves can be everywhere, and not just in remote regions of the world, it is incumbent on us to keep a watchful eye for potential victims in our surroundings. While certain professions including hospital, hotel and transit workers have more exposure to potential slaves, there are questions we can ask whenever we see someone who we think is at risk:
- Is a juvenile engaged in commercial sex acts?
- Is the person disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
- Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?
- Is the person fearful, timid or submissive?
- Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep or medical care?
- Is the person often in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, e.g., where they go or who they talk to?
- Does the person appear to be coached on what to say?
- Is the person living in unsuitable conditions?
- Does the person lack personal possessions and appear not to have a stable living situation?
If you believe a person is a victim of sexual slavery or human trafficking, you can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline 24 hours a day at 1-888-373-7888. We might not be able to stop hurricanes or war, but we can make a call. For one person in need, a call might make all the difference in the world.
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About the Author
Gamal Hennessy is a commercial contracts attorney and author from New York City. His legal work focuses on helping companies and individuals benefit from their art and creativity. His Crime and Passion novels explore the darker elements of personality and society against the backdrop of international sex slavery.