In September, the International Labor Organization, Walk Free and the International Order of Migration put out a report entitled “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage,” stating that on any given day, there are 49.6 million people living in modern slavery, either as forced labor or in a forced marriage. Of that, 6.3 million people are used for commercial sexual exploitation.

Over the years, the issue has gotten worse. According to the report, “Compounding crises – the COVID-19 pandemic, armed conflicts, and climate change – in recent years have led to unprecedented disruption to employment and education, increases in extreme poverty and forced and unsafe migration, and an upsurge in reports of gender-based violence, together serving to heighten the risk of all forms of modern slavery.”

One of the main ways of forcing someone into modern slavery is through human trafficking, defined by Anti-Slavery International as “The use of violence, threats or coercion to transport, recruit or harbour people in order to exploit them for purposes such as forced prostitution, labour, criminality, marriage or organ removal.”

In the United States, the vast majority of trafficking victims are those that are discriminated against, including people of color, indigenous peoples, immigrants and people who identify as LGBTQ+. People living in poverty or foster care, or who struggle with addiction, trauma or abuse are also at higher risk of being trafficked.

Recently, human trafficking has become a hot topic on social media, such as with posts warning about the marking of cars via sticky notes or zip ties. These stories have sparked fears and concerns over strangers kidnapping people.

Michelle Jeanis, Ph.D., UL Lafayette assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice, spoke on these stories being circulated in social media, stating that there isn’t any evidence to back up that these are genuine signs of human trafficking.

“It’s these urban legends that are spread around. Like the sticky notes, the symbols on the car, I’ve seen that a lot, like they’re window symbols. They’re not substantiated, there’s no evidence that symbols, sticky notes, zip ties, any of that are linked to actual cases of human trafficking or sex trafficking,” Jeanis said.

However, Jeanis understands the fear surrounding this issue, and advised that if someone finds something they think is suspicious, they should still document it and report it to the ULPD, but they shouldn’t let it stop them from what they were doing.

“Because there are a lot of things that can keep us up at night, right? Like if we really wanted to be scared, gosh there are a host of reasons to be scared. Especially on college campuses, sexual assault rates are higher generally on college campuses,” Jeanis said. “So it is not to say that our students and our women and our men shouldn’t be precautious. We should be aware of our surroundings and precautious, but we’re probably more likely to be victimized by someone we know, unfortunately.”

According to the Human Trafficking Response Guide for Campus Law Enforcement and Public Safety Officials, college students are vulnerable to this particular crime due to factors such as living away from home, many for the first time, economic dependence, alcohol and substance usage and potential immigration status. 

According to the guide, “College students may be away from home for the first time and trying to fit in with their new surroundings, making them potential targets for traffickers.”

Jeanis said that in most cases of human trafficking, the perpetrator isn’t a stranger, but someone that the victim knows who has formed a relationship with them either as a friend or partner.

“They usually try and form a close intimate, with consent, relationship with that person, and then convince them through that process, ‘Oh well here’s my friend, you can make a little money, don’t you want to make me happy?’ There’s usually alcohol or drugs involved, like ‘You’ll feel better just take this.’ So then your ability to judge for yourself is poor because you’re under substances,” Jeanis said.

She also said that there are many cases of human trafficking involving victims being abused and trafficked by their own family members.

“It’ll be uncle such-and-such that had this history of molesting the kids, and then there’ll be a cousin, somebody who finds out about it and wants to be involved. And then they together will start abusing that younger child, and then they might have a friend who catches on to what’s going on, and they decide to sell that child to that friend for a little while, that kind of thing. Because the family has access to that kiddo, usually unsupervised,” Jeanis said.

Jeanis spoke on how much of an emphasis is placed on victims and what they could have done differently, rather than focusing on the offenders themselves.

“For women it’s particularly hard because we’re told these messages that if you do these things bad things will happen and then it’ll be your fault. And that’s the problem. We will never intervene on offending behavior if we focus on the victim,” Jeanis said.

The Polaris Project, a non-profit that works to combat human trafficking, stresses the importance of tackling the factors that lead people to being put in a vulnerable situation that makes them more likely to be a victim of human trafficking. This includes policies to keep people from being evicted during uncertain economic times, changes to the foster care system to better protect the youth, to the immigration system so people aren’t controlled by a fear of deportation and ensuring that workers can earn a living wage and don’t fall into poverty or an unstable housing situation.