This National Preparedness Month, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) is focused on building a “culture of preparedness” across human and social service providers. As part of this mission, the ACF Office on Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) and Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness and Response (OHSEPR) are highlighting the relationship between natural disasters and human trafficking as two public health issues that impact many children and families ACF serves.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall, its flooding and 120 miles-per-hour winds causing widespread damage and destruction. According to the National Hurricane Center Visit disclaimer page (PDF), Katrina was directly responsible for approximately 1,200 deaths and $108 billion in property damage. Katrina caused immediate harm and impacted long-term well-being. In 2017, doctors in two health centers in New Orleans reported that 90% of patients Visit disclaimer page receiving treatment for substance use and co-occurring disorders had lived through Katrina.
When thinking about Katrina and other natural disasters, human trafficking may not come to mind. Instead, we may imagine destroyed homes or overcrowded shelters. However, reporting demonstrates a direct correlation between the consequences of natural disasters and an increased risk of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. In 2015, a federal jury awarded $14 million Visit disclaimer page to five Indian guest workers exploited to repair facilities damaged by Katrina. Human trafficking also increased after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti Visit disclaimer page, the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa Visit disclaimer page, and the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines Visit disclaimer page. Increased levels of trafficking were also a concern after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and OTIP partnered with the City of Houston Mayor’s Office to support their anti-trafficking response during the disaster. A year later, OTIP convened a roundtable using Hurricane Harvey as a case study to discuss lessons learned, identify gaps, and develop new resources to protect people from post-disaster trafficking.
These cases are not coincidental; rather, natural disasters often compound vulnerabilities that individuals, families, and communities may already be experiencing. Disasters can cause people to lose their homes, jobs, and transportation and disrupt support systems that are in place to keep them safe. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported Visit disclaimer page (PDF) high winds, storm surges, and flooding contributed to almost 128,000 lost jobs within the year following Katrina. Traffickers can exploit these conditions by promising food, shelter, and other resources, sometimes posing as disaster responders or social service professionals to gain trust. As shown in the examples above, disasters can also create new markets for cheap labor, incentivizing traffickers to recruit people who lost their job or migrant workers through fraudulent offers, promising employment and/or residency before using other tactics to maintain control. For more information on the nexus between human trafficking and natural disasters, see OTIP’s trafficking prevention and disaster response literature review.
Here are some strategies to prevent and address post-disaster trafficking and build healthy, resilient, sustainable communities in the aftermath of emergencies.
Train disaster management professionals to prevent, identify, and address human trafficking before, during, and after disasters. Disaster responders and health care providers likely interact with someone experiencing human trafficking during or after a disaster. OTIP’s National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Center (NHTTAC) offers free training modules through SOAR Online that teach frontline professionals how to deliver trauma-informed care Visit disclaimer page and culturally and linguistically appropriate services Visit disclaimer page. Building on these foundational modules, the Disaster Management: Preventing and Responding to Human Trafficking Visit disclaimer page training equips disaster management professionals with tailored tools and resources to respond to human trafficking concerns during emergencies. Fact Sheets developed by OTIP and the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response are also available to help professionals prepare for and address post-disaster trafficking.
Conduct outreach to raise awareness of human trafficking. Before a disaster occurs, responders should identify and build relationships with communities most at risk of human trafficking, including those with high levels of individuals who may be homeless or undocumented, to tell them about post-disaster trafficking schemes and recruitment tactics. During disasters and recovery, responders can develop social media and other communication campaigns in coordination with shelters to provide information on trafficking to people who have been displaced. Organizations should also direct outreach toward the corporate community and private sector industries to ensure they can mitigate risks of forced labor in their workforce, contracts, and supply chains. All outreach information should be person-centered, trauma-informed, and culturally and linguistically appropriate and encourage help-seeking behaviors, including how to contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline Visit disclaimer page.
Develop protocols and establish avenues for sustainable resource and service delivery. Disasters can uniquely challenge programming and service delivery, but organizations must sustain the capacity to continually deliver post-disaster resources when their communities need them the most. OTIP’s NHTTAC developed fact sheets to help emergency managers and service providers continue human trafficking programming and other operations during and after disasters. These include tools and resources for remote service delivery, as well as strategies for emergency succession planning. Organizations should actively engage individuals with lived experience to strengthen this process, as their insight and expertise will help ensure those impacted receive holistic care.
When considering these strategies, it is important to remember that while disasters and human trafficking can impact anyone, not everyone is equally impacted or at risk. As President Biden said in his proclamation on National Preparedness Month Visit disclaimer page, “the most vulnerable among us often bear the most significant impacts” in the wake of natural disasters. Many of the same communities are most at risk of human trafficking. Strengthening equity will help ensure those most likely to be at the nexus of natural disaster and human trafficking vulnerability receive appropriate and comprehensive support. Learn more about how OTIP and OHSEPHR are advancing equity in human trafficking and emergency preparedness and response programming.
As natural disasters continue to increase in frequency throughout the world, OTIP and OHSEPR remain more committed than ever to building a culture of preparedness. This National Preparedness Month, we renew our commitment to partnering with emergency responders, service providers, community organizations, and families to ensure everyone can safely recover from emergencies, disasters, or other adversities, including being protected from post-disaster trafficking.
To learn more, listen to OHSEPR Director Natalie Grant and OTIP Director Katherine Chon discuss Visit disclaimer page the increased risk of human trafficking associated with disasters and practical preparedness tips for individuals and organizations. Visit OHSEPR’s website for additional recommendations for individuals and families for disaster preparedness.