Identifying Trafficking


Signs of Trafficking

There are sometimes tell-tale signs when commercial establishments are holding people against their will. Visible indicators may include:

  • Heavy security at the commercial establishment including barred windows, locked doors, isolated location, electronic surveillance. Women are never seen leaving the premises unless escorted.
  • Victims live at the same premises as the brothel or work site or are driven between quarters and “work” by a guard. For labor trafficking, victims are often prohibited from leaving the work site, which may look like a guarded compound from the outside.

  • Victims are kept under surveillance when taken to a doctor, hospital or clinic for treatment; trafficker may act as a translator.

  • High foot traffic-especially for brothels where there may be trafficked women-often by a stream of men arriving and leaving the premises.

Trafficking victims are kept in bondage through a combination of fear, intimidation, abuse, and psychological controls. While each victim will have a different experience, they share common threads that may signify a life of indentured servitude.

The indicators on the next few pages in and of themselves may not be enough to meet the legal standard for trafficking, but they indicate that a victim is controlled by someone else and, accordingly, the situation should be further investigated.

What Is the Profile of a Trafficking Victim?

Most trafficking victims will not readily volunteer information about their status because of fear and abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of their trafficker. They may also be reluctant to come forward with information from despair, discouragement, and a sense that there are no viable options to escape their situation. Even if pressed, they may not identify themselves as someone held in bondage for fear of retribution to themselves or family members. However, there are indicators that often point to a person held in a slavery or slavery-like conditions. They include:

Health Characteristics of a Trafficked Person

Trafficked individuals are often treated as disposable possessions without much attention given to their mental or physical health. Accordingly, some of the health problems that may be evident in a victim include:

  • Malnutrition, dehydration, or poor personal hygiene;

  • Sexually transmitted diseases;

  • Signs of rape or sexual abuse;

  • Bruising, broken bones, or other signs of untreated medical problems;

  • Critical illnesses including diabetes, cancer, or heart disease; and

  • Post-traumatic stress or psychological disorders.

Signs That a Person Is Being Held as a Slave

In addition to some of the obvious physical and mental indicators of trafficking, there are other signs that an individual is being controlled by someone else. Red flags should go up for police, aid workers, or other observers who notice any of the following-especially during an initial contact. The individual:

  • Does not hold his/her own identity or travel documents;

  • Suffers from verbal or psychological abuse designed to intimidate, degrade and frighten the individual;

  • Has a trafficker or pimp who controls all the money, victim will have very little or no pocket money; and

  • Is extremely nervous, especially if their “translator” (who may be their trafficker) is present during an intake.

Coupled with any of the above, another indicator that a person may be held against their will is if the individual is a foreigner, unable to speak the language of the country where they reside or work.

While there is no set formula to determine whether or not a person has been trafficked, the following list of questions can serve as a guideline to determine if trafficking elements are present in a given situation.

Trafficking Screening Questions

  1. Is the person free to leave the work site?

  2. Is the person physically, sexually or psychologically abused?

  3. Does the person have a passport or valid I.D. card and is he/she in possession of such documents?

  4. What is the pay and what are the conditions of employment?

  5. Does the person live at home or at/near the work site?

  6. How did the individual arrive at this destination if the suspected victim is a foreign national?

  7. Has the person or a family member of this person been threatened?

  8. Does the person fear that something bad will happen to him or her, or to a family member, if he/she leaves the job?

Anyone can report suspected trafficking cases. If the victim is under 18, U.S. professionals who work in law enforcement, health care, social care, mental health, and education are mandated to report such cases.


Remember not to press a trafficked person to tell you their history unless you have the appropriate training-such conversations can be very difficult for the person you’re talking to, and are best handled by those who are trained for and actively involved in the trafficked person’s recovery. Instead, call the national trafficking hotline for help.

Trafficking victims are often from countries where police corruption is much more common than it is in the developed world, and may in some cases have had police as clients-they may be very hesitant to contact the authorities. Making any such contact through the national trafficking hotline helps ensure local professionalism and prevent misunderstandings that would re-victimize a trafficking survivor, such as police who arrest a trafficked woman for prostitution.

The Road To Recovery

Trafficked victims have been through extensive personal hardships that may include isolation from family members and severed relationships from their home community, while having suffered from physical abuse and medical problems from months-or often years-in slavery. Their road to recovery is generally intense and requires considerable aftercare on several levels.

Once identified, a trafficked individual may require any or all of the following services:

  • Witness protection or general protection from traffickers;

  • Translation;

  • Housing, food, and clothing;

  • Medical care;

  • Legal assistance;

  • Language training;

  • Vocational or educational training; and

  • Counseling.


Much of the information in the “Identifying Trafficking” appendix is taken from a US State Department Fact Sheet for Recognizing Victims of Trafficking in Persons. That in turn is based on material from Donna Hughes, ECPAT USA & IOFA 2003, Vital Voices, and the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.


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