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The Role of Healthcare Providers in Combating Human Trafficking during Disasters

Healthcare providers may not realize they are a crucial partner in combating and preventing human trafficking, particularly during and after emergency events. Human trafficking is a crime involving the exploitation of someone for the purposes of compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. It affects men, women, boys, and girls across the world, including here in the United States, and is commonly regarded as one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time. Human trafficking affects every community in the United States across age, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic backgrounds. It is a market-driven criminal industry that is based on the principles of supply and demand, like drugs or arms trafficking. Many factors make children and adults vulnerable to human trafficking, including disasters.

Disasters make children and adults vulnerable to human trafficking because they often create chaos and disrupt systems that are in place to protect people. Perpetrators of human trafficking are able to exploit these conditions to their benefit. Disasters may also result in children becoming separated from their parents, survivors of disasters engaging in survival strategies that increase their risk of being taken advantage of, and new markets for cheap labor being created to fill rebuilding needs. Given that disasters increase the risks associated with human trafficking, healthcare and emergency service professionals providing care to individuals during or after a disaster are likely to encounter a person who has been or is being trafficked. 

Studies have shown that even outside of a disaster context, approximately 50% of trafficking victims saw a health professional while in captivity. However, healthcare workers, and particularly physicians, are rarely trained to recognize these patients, despite their potential opportunity to intervene. Thus, by becoming more aware of the problem and how to respond, healthcare providers working both in and outside of a disaster context can help by preventing continued victimization caused by human trafficking.

The materials presented here can be used by disaster responders and health professionals to understand the relationship between human trafficking and disasters, how to recognize signs of human trafficking, what resources exist for further training on this topic, and what to do if you suspect one of your patients is a victim of human trafficking.