The Power of Local Communities in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

4 minutes read time
An Indonesian official put on wrist bands on recently rescued Burmese fishermen, who had been trafficked, for identification purpose upon their arrival in Tual, Indonesia.
An Indonesian official put on wrist bands on recently rescued Burmese fishermen, who had been trafficked, for identification purpose upon their arrival in Tual, Indonesia.

The Power of Local Communities in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

For more than 15 years, the State Department has led the U.S. government in bilateral and multilateral engagement with foreign governments to bolster their efforts to combat trafficking in persons. What we have learned over the years is that victims of modern slavery are exploited in forced labor and the commercial sex industry in virtually every country around the world. With an estimated 25 million victims, human trafficking persists globally, in defiance of all borders.   

It is important to remember, however, that despite its pernicious global sweep, human trafficking happens in local communities -- in a favorite nail salon or restaurant, in a neighbor’s home, on a farm, or in a city’s streets. Traffickers reap profits from the exploitation of others, leaving individual victims and their local communities to face the consequences.

Time after time, we have seen that traffickers operate with an innate understanding of the political, social, economic, and cultural contours of a local community. They exploit weaknesses in protection and take advantage of the hopes and fears of their victims, preying -- for example -- on parents’ dreams of an education for their children or on an undocumented migrant worker’s distrust of law enforcement officers.

Addressing these issues can be difficult from a distance, so national governments should draw on the experience and know-how of local leaders, NGOs and advocates, and individual community members, all of whom have a sincere stake in seeing the end of human trafficking in the places they call home. 

The introduction to this year’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report focuses on the importance of local communities in the fight against human trafficking and encourages national governments to support and empower their partners on the ground. It underscores how local context and a dynamic policy framework are integral components of any anti-trafficking strategy and highlights the opportunities national governments have to facilitate coordination, cooperation, and responsibility-sharing with and between local governments and communities.    

The introduction also outlines some of the important activities necessary for driving local action, including forming task forces, conducting community assessments so that anti-trafficking responses are tailored to the local context, raising awareness among those professionals and community members likely to come into contact with trafficking victims, and developing processes and protocols for an effective, victim-centered response. 

As always, the TIP Report, especially through the country narratives, underscores the responsibility national governments bear in combating human trafficking across the 3Ps of prosecution, protection, and prevention. In encouraging national governments to partner with local communities, we are not suggesting that those governments minimize their obligations or reduce their own efforts. Instead, we encourage them to see these communities as strategic partners in the fight against human trafficking.

In addition to encouraging engagement between national and local governments, this year’s report also encourages readers to acknowledge and understand that their communities are not powerless against modern slavery. Individuals can learn to recognize the signs of human trafficking and know where to go for help when they see it. They can educate others on the tactics of traffickers; demand that local authorities and other professionals be trained to address the crime and take appropriate action; and contribute their time, money, and talents to the issue.

Thus, while human trafficking takes its greatest toll at the community level, local communities actually have the most to contribute toward lasting solutions. It is communities that are most familiar with local human trafficking trends and that have the greatest stake in their own safekeeping, which makes them both powerful and necessary forces in the fight against modern slavery. I therefore urge national governments around the world to mobilize and support their local communities. Doing so will not only strengthen efforts to prosecute traffickers and protect their victims, but it will also enhance critical prevention efforts in this global fight.  

About the Author: Kari Johnstone serves as Acting Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.