Human trafficking— using force, fraud or coercion to exploit a person for the purposes of commercial sex or to work against their will—happens in the United States. But it’s not always easy to recognize the victims or understand the scope of the problem.
We recently examined some of the challenges the federal government faces in combating human trafficking—and here’s what we found.
An underreported crime with many faces
Figure 3: Office for Victims of Crime “The Faces of Human Trafficking” Public Awareness Campaign Poster
The victims of human trafficking are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and sexuality, and include :
- women, men, and transgender individuals;
- adults and children;
- and citizens and foreign nationals.
Victims are often already vulnerable, such as missing or runaway youth or someone with a drug addiction. And the perpetrators can be almost anyone: family members, intimate partners, acquaintances, or strangers. They may act alone or within a criminal network. Traffickers may lure victims with false promises—such as offering a seemingly legitimate job—and force victims to remain in the situation with threats, abuse, or by withholding identification and immigration documents.
But, given the clandestine nature of trafficking, nobody really knows how prevalent it is. While federal efforts are underway to collect data, most of what is known is from information reported to law enforcement or hotlines—and these crimes are likely underreported.
Building cases against human traffickers
Even when trafficking is spotted and reported, law enforcement may not be able to build a case. It is difficult to distinguish human trafficking from legal activities, such as child care or restaurant workers, or from other crimes (such as prostitution). Victims may also distrust law enforcement and be unwilling to cooperate, fearing retaliation from the trafficker or not seeing themselves as victims. In fact, when U.S. Attorney’s Offices have had to decline human trafficking cases, the main reason was insufficient evidence.
Awareness about human trafficking can help fight it. So, some groups are taking steps to raise public awareness of the problem. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, is running its “Blue Campaign” to provide information to the public and training to law enforcement.
What GAO Found
Federal agencies have begun efforts to assess the prevalence of human trafficking in the United States and develop data standards and definitions to help facilitate prevalence studies. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is sponsoring the Human Trafficking Data Collection Project, which seeks to inform the development of an integrated data collection platform regarding human trafficking victimization, establish baseline knowledge of human trafficking and victim needs, and support effective prevention and intervention responses. HHS, in consultation with key stakeholders, has developed draft data fields and definitions for human trafficking and expects to begin piloting the data collection effort in fall 2016. Further, the National Institute of Justice, within the Department of Justice (DOJ), has awarded grants for the development and testing of methodologies that could be used to estimate the prevalence of human trafficking.
Federal, state and local law enforcement officials and prosecutors GAO interviewed reported that investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases is challenging for multiple reasons, including a lack of victim cooperation, limited availability of services for victims, and difficulty identifying human trafficking. Officials told us that obtaining the victim’s cooperation is important because the victim is generally the primary witness and source of evidence; however, obtaining and securing victims’ cooperation is difficult, as victims may be unable or unwilling to testify due to distrust of law enforcement or fear of retaliation by the trafficker. According to these officials, victim service programs, such as those that provide mental health and substance abuse services, have helped improve victim cooperation; however, the availability of services is limited. Further, officials reported that identifying and distinguishing human trafficking from other crimes such as prostitution can be challenging. Federal, state, and local agencies have taken or are taking actions to address these challenges, such as increasing the availability of victim services through grants and implementing training and public awareness initiatives.
GAO identified 42 grant programs with awards made in 2014 and 2015 that may be used to combat human trafficking or to assist victims of human trafficking, 15 of which are intended solely for these purposes. Although some overlap exists among these human trafficking grant programs, federal agencies have established processes to help prevent unnecessary duplication. For instance, in response to recommendations in a prior GAO report, DOJ requires grant applicants to identify any federal grants they are currently operating under as well as federal grants for which they have applied. In addition, agencies that participate in the Grantmaking Committee of the Senior Policy Operating Group are encouraged to share grant solicitations and information on proposed grant awards, allowing other agencies to comment on proposed grant awards and determine whether they plan to award funding to the same organization.
Why GAO Did This Study
Human trafficking—the exploitation of a person typically through force, fraud, or coercion for such purposes as forced labor, involuntary servitude or commercial sex—is occurring in the United States. Congress has passed multiple laws to help ensure punishment of traffickers and protection of victims. DOJ and the Department of Homeland Security lead federal investigations and prosecutions of trafficking crimes. The Departments of Defense, Labor, and State, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigate trafficking related offenses under certain circumstances, and take further action, as appropriate. DOJ and HHS award grants to fund victim service programs.
The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 includes a provision for GAO to review law enforcement efforts and grant programs to combat human trafficking and assist victims in the United States. This report discusses (1) federal efforts to assess prevalence of human trafficking (2) challenges agencies face in investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases, and 3) federal grants and steps taken to prevent duplication. GAO reviewed trafficking data and agency documents, and conducted 32 interviews with federal, state and local law enforcement officials and prosecutors in four jurisdictions. We selected these jurisdictions based on the number of human trafficking tips they received, receipt of human trafficking task force funding and geographic variation. These officials’ perspectives cannot be generalized to all jurisdictions but they provide insights into anti-trafficking efforts.
Collaborating to stop traffickers in their tracks
Federal agencies, state and local law enforcement, and non-governmental organizations have taken a collaborative approach to combating human trafficking in the United States. Federal agencies such as the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Labor, and State play a key role in investigating and prosecuting offenders, training officials, and providing public awareness campaigns. At the local level, agencies and organizations help meet victims’ short- and long-term needs, such as legal and immigration services, employment and education assistance, food and clothing, and medical and child care.
To see law enforcement data on human trafficking investigations, arrests, and convictions, as well as details on the 42 federal grant programs that combat trafficking or assist victims, check out FULL REPORT: HUMAN TRAFFICKING Agencies Have Taken Steps to Assess Prevalence, Address Victim Issues, and Avoid Grant Duplication