HUMAN TRAFFICKING PROJECT: Second Thoughts and Questions Submitted

I'm finding it hard to talk about Human Trafficking. That is to say, I'm finding myself reluctant to speak with too much authority for fear that I misstep or give the impression that I've "figured out a solution". I accept this as a good problem, and one that has (rightfully) been present in my investigations of PTSD, life and need in Burundi, Disaster/Crisis Management or Stop & Frisk. But sometimes I feel the distance between learning and doing. Especially when learning is reading.

I've been fortunate to connect directly with a few experts who have confirmed or debunked my assumptions, but that's almost more dangerous, as it enables a confidence in the material that can cloud my sensitivity. With that in mind, I’m letting my gut creativity run off-leash, constantly checking back with myself about what the costs of my ideas are, and to whom. I’m letting myself move loosely, because at this point, I’d rather be corrected than try to guess “what is right/best”. I’ll learn more from that, I think. And it will inform my new ideas better than guessing what has “no chance of working.” This is about me. Let me talk more about Human Trafficking.

On strong recommendation, I have been digesting all of the Polaris Project site. It is not only comprehensive, but there is such artful and thoughtful care in the choice of words and content. Information is framed as one side of a dialogue with a person who has deep and common questions and misconceptions about Human Trafficking. I recommend spending some time on this site, and a few stand outs are their Recognizing the Signs and Why Trafficking Exists pages.

Going through the list of signs is informative, because it reminds you of some nuanced things we take for granted to ask about someone’s life, and also illustrates the severity of someone’s situation if they’re being victimized. Here is the list:

Common Work and Living Conditions: The Individual(s) in Question

  • Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes
  • Is under 18 and is providing commercial sex acts
  • Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp / manager
  • Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
  • Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
  • Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
  • Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
  • Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
  • High security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)

Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior

  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement
  • Avoids eye contact

Poor Physical Health

  • Lacks health care
  • Appears malnourished
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture

Lack of Control

  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is not in control of his/her own money, no financial records, or bank account
  • Is not in control of his/her own identification documents (ID or passport)
  • Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)


  • Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where he/she is staying/address
  • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or do not know what city he/she is in
  • Loss of sense of time
  • Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story

I’m still investigating ways to adopt and translate Crisis/Disaster Management models for this space. But in the meantime, and for the sake of “doing”, I’ve mocked up a simple messaging strategy. The SOAP Project, aims to put bars of soap embedded with the National Human Trafficking hotline number into hotel/motel bathrooms. In that vein, I thought I’d add to that typical bathroom collateral that commonly gets ignored. The push for eco-use of residential resources in hotels has made instruction cards for towel and water use commonplace. Co-opting the signage of these existing campaigns camouflages the important information from an oppressor (pimp, corrupt hotel manager, etc.) who makes cursory checks on these rooms. But if the bathroom is your only temporary safe space, there is the potential for hyper-awareness of the details, which would give you a more in depth message about whether you are a part of the Human Trafficking equation and what you can do about it.

Here is are two rough samples: