Human trafficking is an issue that characterizes our complex developed societies. However, it is difficult to evaluate as victims are coerced and are often afraid to make their situation known. The United States (US) has found a means to partially resolve this issue by creating the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which serves victims 364 days a year in more than 200 languages, via phone or email, and has some of the most extensive data on human trafficking. We say “partially resolve” because many affected people might not have sufficient information about this website and its true confidentiality. The numbers presented account only for the cases that have been reported.

11,500 human trafficking cases reported in 2019

In this respect, a Human Trafficking Statistics report for 2019 published by the World Population Review provides detailed data on the incidence of human trafficking by state in the US. According to the report, “In 2019, the United States had 11,500 human trafficking cases reported. The most common type of trafficking was sex trafficking (8,248 reports), with the most common venues being illicit massage/spa businesses and pornography.” The report continues, “A common misconception about human trafficking is that it does not happen in the United States. This is false, as the United States is ranked as one of the worst countries globally for human trafficking. It is estimated that 199,000 incidents occur within the United States every year.” The same misconception also affects many other countries.

Profile of the victim

An article published last May in the British journal The Lancet – Child and Adolescent Health, entitled Child trafficking is more than a crime, discusses the issue, in relation to a book by Jonathan Todres and Angela Diaz called Preventing Child Trafficking. The authors of the book say that there are misconceptions — mainly among healthcare providers — about the profile of the eventual victim, since “some health providers assume that victims of sex trafficking are all young, foreign girls brought to the United States for forced prostitution”, which they qualify as a “poorly informed and damaging assumption”. The issue is much more complex and includes several other forms of abuse such as slavery, forced labor, organ removal, etc.; furthermore, it happens not only to young people.

From a humanitarian and bioethical perspective, we have a collective social responsibility to actively prevent this abuse and identify the victims.

In this regard, an article published in the journal of the American Medical Association (AMA) last January (read the full article HERE) and several specialists and scientific papers identify the “unique and critical role” healthcare professionals have in preventing and identifying human trafficking.

Human trafficking scourge increased with the pandemia

The article says that pandemics “may lead to increased human trafficking”. Kanani Titchen MD, who leads the American Medical Women’s Association Physicians Against the Trafficking of Humans project says that “‘Pandemics can be viewed as a push factor for human trafficking because they create desperation, which may place people in increasingly vulnerable and dangerous situations ‘in order to support their families because they create desperation,’ she added. ‘In my talks with law enforcement and the FBI, the evidence is starting to roll in that there is a rise in human trafficking (read HERE), specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic.’

‘Apart from that, when we talk about survivors of human trafficking, they become increasingly isolated,’ said Dr. Titchen. ‘These are vulnerable people and now they’re further isolated, and perhaps find it harder to find that emotional support that they’re used to finding in person in a group scenario.’”

Bioethical and medical opinion and the responsibility of medical associations worldwide to fight the human trafficking scourge

In our opinion, the great contribution of the AMA is that it “encourages the education of physicians about human trafficking, including how to identify and report cases of suspected human trafficking to appropriate authorities, and how to address the victim’s medical, legal and social needs”. We suggest that our readers read the aforementioned article because of the concrete and realistic implementation of proactive solutions to this ethical social and humanitarian scourge. From a bioethical perspective, without medical associations worldwide adopting a global policy, this urgent issue could leave human trafficking in a limbo of a mere condemnation.