Human trafficking: How psychologists can combat this worldwide problem

By Mary Catherine Burke, Ph.D.
July 21, 2014

Human trafficking: How psychologists can combat this worldwide problemHuman trafficking,” “trafficking in persons” and “modern slavery” are terms used interchangeably to refer to a variety of crimes associated with the economic exploitation of people. The United Nations Convention against Trans-national Organized Crime defines trafficking as follows:

“Trafficking in persons… mean(s) the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power, or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation… (which)… include(s)…, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

Critical to understanding human trafficking is what is the meaning of coercion, which in this context refers to (a) threats of harm to or physical restraint against any person; (b) any scheme intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act will result in harm or physical restraint against any person; or (c) the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process.

However, it is essential to take other factors into consideration with regard to coercion, in particular when working with victims of sex trafficking and prostitution, such as whether the individual had any legitimate alternatives to support her basic needs when approached by the pimp. If not, then the thinking is that desperation to perform responsibilities, such as child support and feeding and keeping one’s self safe, can be a form of coercion.

In common stereotypes, victims of human trafficking are often depicted as innocent young girls who are lured or kidnapped from their home countries and forced into the commercial sex industry. However, women, men and children of all ages can be trafficked for sex and labor. Those at risk of trafficking most often come from vulnerable populations including undocumented migrants, runaways and at-risk youth, females and members of other oppressed or marginalized groups and the poor.

Traffickers manipulate and control victims and are known to make use of a combination of violence and affection in an effort to cultivate compliance and sometimes loyalty in the victim. This can sometimes result in Stockholm syndrome, a psychological phenomenon characterized by empathy and positive feelings experienced by the victim for the perpetrator. This can serve as a protective factor for the survivor by reducing anxiety and fear and it can result in a reduction in the likelihood of acting out against the trafficker. This also may lay the groundwork for a more complex trauma reaction in victims.

A change in the federal definition of trafficking included in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act expanded the definition of sex trafficking to include any person under the age of consent (18 years) involved in a commercial sex act. This has increased the number of U.S. citizen sex trafficking victims.

Suggestions for involvement by psychologists

Efforts related to human trafficking are relatively new in the United States and this “movement” has many areas in which psychologists can be involved. Anti-trafficking activities implemented at local, national and international levels are often categorized under the “4 Ps”, which include: Policy and Cooperation; Prevention; Prosecution; and Protection, Recovery and Reintegration.

Policy and cooperation

Within this area of intervention, psychologists can be involved by ensuring that all policies, procedures and action plans are culturally appropriate and survivor-focused. Psychologists can also consider whether these plans and SOPs include data collection and that such data collection and analysis is properly implemented. These contributions may call for participating at the development stage or it could mean being in a position to review plans, policies and guidelines before implementation.


In the area of prevention, psychologists can serve as educators of the general public, parents and school employees or with appropriate expertise, with the training of specialist populations (e.g., law enforcement). Psychologists can collaborate with those working on this issue internationally as well.


Psychologists can work with law enforcement and legal professionals, serving as a consultant or as a direct care provider to survivors being served by these professionals. Properly trained psychologists can also serve as consultants in the development of legislation and can serve in the role of mobilizing agents for lobbying for stronger laws in their locale.


Survivors of trafficking are protected through provision of a wide range of services, many of which include meeting her or his most basic of needs. Foreign national survivors who are afforded the opportunity to remain in the United States may also need protection from being re-victimized. One way this is achieved is by increasing the extent to which the individual is self-sufficient. To that end, educational and/or vocational training are made available.

Psychologists working to protect survivors of trafficking can do so in a number of ways, including working closely with those providing services in any area related to the provision of basic needs. Counseling and clinical psychologists in particular are well-suited to consult with and offer training in these instances.

Additional areas of involvement: Therapeutic involvement

Human trafficking may be traumatic. The extent to which the survivor is traumatized depends on the specifics of the situation and on her or his perspective and previous trauma history.

Appropriately trained and licensed psychologists can provide counseling, ideally pro-bono or at a reduced fee for survivors.


A recent review of the literature by the APA Task Force on the Trafficking of Women and Girls confirmed that there is a lack of scientific literature related to the trafficking of women and girls. Given their training, psychologists can make meaningful contributions in this area.

Community coalition building

Community based coalitions have played an essential role in the anti-trafficking movement in the United States, but there remains a need for more coalitions in many regions. Psychologists can serve to mobilize citizens to create a coalition in collaboration with law enforcement, social service organizations, health care providers and legal professionals.

Mary Burke, Ph.D., is a professor at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, Pa. More information is available at Her email

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