Local Solutions to a Global Problem: Supporting Communities in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons


The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, as amended (TVPA), defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as:

  • sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or
  • the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

A victim need not be physically transported from one location to another for the crime to fall within this definition.

Human trafficking is a global phenomenon to which no country is immune. Victims of modern slavery are exploited in every region of the world, compelled into service for labor or commercial sex in the real world of industry and on the pages of the internet. The enormity of the problem necessitates the development of a unified, comprehensive response from world leaders to collectively address a crime that defies all borders.

Despite its global reach, human trafficking takes place locally—in a favorite nail salon or restaurant; in a neighborhood home or popular hotel; on a city street or rural farm. Local communities face the realities and consequences of modern slavery, including weakened rule of law, strained public health systems, and decreased economic development, while traffickers profit from the exploitation of others.

International recognition of the devastating effects of human trafficking grows each year. As of the date of this report, governments of more than 170 countries have made public commitments to its eradication, promising punishment for traffickers, care for victims, and action to prevent this crime. The importance of these commitments cannot be overstated.

Yet, the grinding reality of fighting modern slavery takes place not on world stages but through the dedicated actions of individuals to meaningfully implement such commitments—in the slow and often tedious process of building a strong case against a trafficker; the long-term and case-specific provision of comprehensive care for victims; the consistent efforts of civil society partners to strategically raise awareness about human trafficking; and the development of well-planned and evidence-driven preventive policies.

National governments cannot do these things alone. Their commitments to this issue are more effectively realized in partnership with the communities that face it, including local authorities, NGOs and advocates, and individual community members who are often the eyes, ears, and hearts of the places they call home. After all, traffickers exploit the political, social, economic, and cultural contours of local communities, often in ways that would be hard to address fully from a distance. By supporting and empowering these communities, national governments can truly begin to address the individual trafficking cases that collectively make up the larger global issue.

This year’s Trafficking in Persons Report highlights some of the elements of an effective community-based approach, the challenges in implementing such initiatives, and the opportunities national governments have to facilitate coordination, cooperation, and responsibility-sharing with and between local governments and communities.

Using the Local Context to Build the Bigger Picture

The nature of human trafficking—multifaceted, complex, and clandestine—poses significant challenges for the development of effective anti-trafficking policies. The root causes of the crime are deeper than any one of its facets and relate to larger systemic conditions such as poverty, forced migration, racism, and discrimination, among many others. Understanding human trafficking in its local context is critical to developing a meaningful response.

Traffickers, perhaps instinctively, know this well. Although human trafficking is often associated with organized crime, and in some cases is facilitated by sophisticated criminal syndicates, in many others it is driven by loose networks, families, or individuals operating independently. Using their first-hand knowledge of local systems, behaviors, social structures, and individual interactions, traffickers exploit vulnerabilities, often betraying the trust of their communities.

Traffickers may, for example, prey on the hopes and dreams of parents searching for a way to give their children access to a good education; recognize a vulnerable community’s fear of engaging law enforcement officials with a reputation for corruption; or rely on bias and discrimination to keep victims hidden in plain sight. Because of this, the dynamics that facilitate human trafficking will be unique in almost every instance and each jurisdiction will face its own challenges related to culture, environment, resources, and knowledge.

National governments have an opportunity to build stronger, more tailored anti-trafficking strategies through close coordination with sub-national governments and communities, including civil society organizations, survivors, and others working on the ground. Without shifting their responsibility, national governments can enable local authorities to take action to assess the needs of their communities and develop responses that build on existing capacity, capitalize on the expertise of a wide range of actors, and identify and distribute underutilized resources.

Addressing human trafficking requires a dynamic policy framework based on the mutually reinforcing pillars of prosecution, protection, prevention, and partnership. Combining international and national resources with local knowledge and energy can help all stakeholders create a more comprehensive and focused strategy with a broader reach. National governments should do all they can to pave the way for efforts on the ground, starting with robust anti-trafficking laws that criminalize all forms of human trafficking, tangible support for victim protection, and robust coordination with and resources for the various stakeholders required to combat and prevent this crime.

The following pages seek to encourage individuals and communities to be proactive in addressing human trafficking, while also highlighting several important activities national governments can take to support local efforts. These lists are not exhaustive—there is always more a government can do.

Building Partnerships and Creating Cooperation

In the fight against human trafficking, multi-stakeholder partnerships are critical. They must exist vertically between national, regional, and local governments, and horizontally between law enforcement, service providers, and other key actors within and across communities.

At every level, inherent limitations and lack of resources necessitate creativity, collaboration, and help from key partners to develop protocols and processes that punish offenders while caring for victims. Law enforcement, for example, can arrest and prosecute traffickers, but cannot do so well without working in tandem with care providers who offer comprehensive support services to victims. Governments rely on the public to report suspicious activities, and therefore are well-served by providing education and resources to help the public understand indicators of human trafficking. Victims need the support of a variety of actors, while anti-trafficking stakeholders benefit from the input and advice of survivors. Local leaders are well-situated to understand the needs of their communities and how best to implement and adapt national policies to the local level, but necessarily rely on their national governments for funding, expertise, and training.

Thus, to address and prevent human trafficking and care for victims effectively, the expertise, resources, and time of a wide range of stakeholders are necessary. This includes both government and nongovernment entities, each with distinct mandates and roles, which may create competing priorities and conflicting interests that are challenging to coordinate. Building and strengthening a collaborative approach across multidisciplinary perspectives can help communities foster trust between relevant actors and develop systems to provide comprehensive care to victims and robust law enforcement action against traffickers.

Importantly, effective responses to human trafficking require involvement of survivors as key stakeholders. Survivors should be included in the discussion, development, and implementation of anti-trafficking policies or protocols and not be asked to relate—and thereby re-live—the stories of the exploitation they experienced. According to the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, “[s]urvivors play uniquely important roles in combating human trafficking in the U.S. and around the world. As subject matter experts, they provide essential tools that investigators, prosecutors, and communities need to combat and prevent human trafficking.” Thus, wherever possible, survivors should be included in community groups dedicated to combating human trafficking and should be compensated for their expertise and time.

Task forces are an effective means of anti-trafficking coordination, as they facilitate partnerships between local law enforcement agencies, service providers, and sub-national and national regulatory authorities.

For example, in 2017 the Governor of Edo State in Nigeria declared human trafficking to be one of his top priorities and created the Edo State Task Force to combat trafficking in persons. It is made up of participants from NGOs, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, Nigeria Immigration Services, Benin City Police Commissioner, Edo State Director of State Security Services, IOM Nigeria, and Edo State government executives, including the Attorney General, the Commissioner for Youth, and the Commissioner for Local Governments, among many others. The task force has arrested at least 10 potential traffickers and provided shelter and services to Nigerian victims repatriated from Libya, among other activities.

In Nepal, the National Committee for Controlling Human Trafficking (NCCHT) oversees nationwide efforts, with support from both district- and local- level committees. The NCCHT routinely meets with and trains members of the 75 district-level committees funded by the Ministry of Women, Children, and Social Welfare to support awareness campaigns, meeting expenses, emergency victim services, and the local committees. Furthermore, they collaborate to implement and report on efforts in line with the government’s 2012-2022 national action plan. As of January 2018, there were 732 local committees in operation, overseeing local efforts and identifying and screening for trafficking within their communities. For example, in April 2017, the vigilance team of the local committee in Maadi Municipality, Chitwan District intercepted at the Indian border a 17-year-old girl who had been recruited with promises of education. The vigilance team then reunited the girl with her family, and she is now continuing her education in Nepal. The local committee filed a case against the trafficker at the Chitwan District Court, which sentenced the trafficker to 10 years imprisonment.

In the city of Houston in the United States, the Houston Area Council on Human Trafficking has doubled in size since its formation in 2012 and includes 42 member organizations that are direct service providers, prevention and advocacy groups, law enforcement agencies, and private funders. The task force is organized into four sub-groups, each focusing on one of the “3Ps”—prosecution, protection, and prevention—and a fourth P for partnerships. The task force is helping to implement the city’s 91-point strategic plan to combat human trafficking.

In the most basic sense, a task force creates a setting for information-sharing on the roles and resources of anti-trafficking stakeholders in the community. It is also a place to share knowledge about human trafficking from different perspectives so that all participants have a similar baseline understanding of its many forms, as well as of the elements that make certain populations vulnerable to the crime. As the task force matures, it can be a place where participants decide how best to approach the variety of trafficking cases that may arise, whether they involve forced labor or sex trafficking, minors or adults, or foreign nationals or citizens, among other factors.

An inclusive task force can be a unified voice that signals to the community the prioritization of human trafficking and can be a starting point for gathering and consolidating information about local instances of human trafficking and current resources for victims. The purpose of such a group is to create a consistent and coordinated response to human trafficking that is tailored to the community, protects the rights of victims, and holds perpetrators accountable. Moreover, a task force can serve as an effective communication channel between sub- and national-level authorities, providing the foundation for targeted and effective national efforts and an accurate understanding of community needs.

To facilitate coordination, national governments can:

  • Encourage and support the establishment of human trafficking task forces in communities to bring together law enforcement, care providers, and others, and enhance access to human trafficking experts.
  • Provide access to experts to help build local capacity and allocate resources, whether financial or in-kind, over a sustained period and in response to local needs to support local efforts across the “3Ps.”
  • Encourage the sharing of successes and challenges across jurisdictions and ensure budget and policy processes incentivize adaptation rather than the status quo.
  • Empower and encourage sub-national authorities to collaborate with NGOs to develop policies and protocols, as well as formal structures like human trafficking task forces.
  • Where national committees or standing NGO working groups exist, engage a broad array of stakeholders in national anti-trafficking efforts.

Conducting Assessments to Understand the Problem

Communities interested in starting or improving on efforts to confront human trafficking may benefit first from assessing the problem. For example, communities may find value in gaining a better understanding of potentially vulnerable communities, the range of services victims may need, and the current resources available to address those needs. Likewise, assessing the general level of understanding on trafficking-related issues by those likely to come into contact with victims, and the processes in place for victim care and law enforcement action can help set a baseline from which to drive continuous improvement.

In Haiti, a prominent NGO has developed a holistic model for community-based action to end the traditional practice of restavèk, a system in which poorer, often rural, parents send their children to live and work in the homes of urban families in exchange for room, board, and access to education—a practice that often leads to domestic servitude. The NGO conducted participatory research on the scale of the problem in selected areas and on the underlying socioeconomic factors that allow this type of human trafficking to flourish. Using this information, each community developed a community action plan to prevent restavèk and protect the children who may fall victim to it. The NGO also facilitated the creation of the network of adult survivors that has become a powerful mechanism both to raise awareness about human trafficking and to advocate for the involvement of survivors in decisions at the national, regional, and community levels.

In response to concerns about the condition of homeless children forced to beg, the Ministry of Justice in Georgia issued more than $20,000 to two NGOs with the goal of identifying and supporting the reintegration of “street children.” The NGOs identified 105 children living on the streets, learning they were mostly Georgian, Azeri, and Moldovan nationals. The research identified economic hardship, limited education, and “cultural matters” as factors making children more likely to be forced into begging activities, such as selling trinkets, begging for spare change, or engaging in physical work like the transportation of goods. Based on this research and pursuant to recommendations by the NGOs that conducted it, the Ministry of Justice awarded an additional $10,000 for an awareness-raising campaign. In addition, the Social Services Agency is responding to the NGOs' recommendations by expanding its facilities in Batumi, which the research identified as a hotbed for “street children” activity during the summer months.

The input of experts who work directly with human trafficking victims is vital to a comprehensive assessment, but members of the broader community may also be able to provide valuable insight. Their understanding of the particular dynamics that may lead to trafficking and their ideas for combating it locally should be included in any discussion.

By gaining a better understanding of the current landscape of victim identification, service provision, and law enforcement action, communities can begin to build formalized processes that can help to ensure victims receive a full range of support services.

To assist with information-gathering, national governments can:

  • Conduct assessments to understand trafficking at the national level and both encourage and support monitoring and routine reporting from local level stakeholders.
  • Develop national and local diagnostic tools to help with the identification of at-risk populations.
  • Support anti-trafficking efforts for populations that may fall outside of traditional national jurisdictions, such as tribal communities, migrants and refugees, and itinerant populations.
  • Provide a national platform for information-sharing and data collection.
  • Fund studies to better understand successful anti-trafficking community models.

Conducting Training and Raising Awareness on Victim Identification

The United States Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime issued a “Guide to Conducting a Needs Assessment.” The guide states:

One of the first tasks of conducting a needs assessment is to identify what you want to learn about your community. What questions do you need answered to help you develop the best program for victims in your area?

Here are some questions to consider:

  • What victim services are being provided within your community? How accessible are these services (e.g., hours, location, language capacity)?
  • How familiar are the key partners and community members with the issue you are trying to address?
  • Have providers in your area been trained on the issue? What are some additional training needs?
  • What outreach efforts are made to educate the public about the issue and the services you provide?
  • Who in your area is best suited to identify potential victims?
  • Which organizations are currently working with the victims you are trying to help?
  • What types of victims have these organizations seen? Are the victims from other countries? What languages do they speak?
  • What services do the victims need? Are you able to meet these needs? What additional support do providers need?
  • Do you have collaborations in place for working with victims? Are you able to pool your resources?
  • Are there any obstacles to accomplishing your mission? What are they? How can they be resolved?

These are just examples of some of the questions you may want answered about your community. The key partners of your initiative will play an important role in framing the issues to be addressed in the needs assessment. Clearly, understanding and articulating what it is you want to learn will help keep the needs assessment focused and purposeful.

https://www.ovcttac.gov/docs/resources/OVCTAGuides/ ConductingNeedsAssessment/step1.html

While comprehensive structures must be in place to effectively combat human trafficking, the best laws and policies will be ineffective if those most likely to come in contact with victims do not know how to identify them or are not empowered to assist them.

Human trafficking is often described as a crime that is “hidden in plain sight” because victims may interact with others in the community but are unlikely to self-identify for many reasons, including fear of harm to themselves or their family members. For example, victims may come into contact with the criminal justice system, seek medical care, attend school or faith services, work in local businesses, or utilize public transportation. Any interaction with professionals or other individuals in these instances provides an opportunity for identification and assistance. Without training and awareness, however, those positioned to recognize the situation and help may not know the indicators of trafficking or the appropriate way to respond.

Professional Engagement

Once a community has identified vulnerable populations and the places they may be most likely to come into contact with professionals, this information can be used to target trainings.

Many victims of human trafficking are likely to come into contact with professionals such as law enforcement officers, health care providers, school administrators and teachers, prosecutors and judges, labor inspectors, transportation providers, and many others.

Studies have shown that the most effective community responses are those in which capacity for victim identification is increased at an institutional and systemic level. In doing so, a community safety net is widened and the burden of identification and care is shared across a spectrum of key actors.

For example, in the United States, as of January 2018, anyone seeking a new or renewed license through the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs is required to have a human trafficking education credit. This will include professionals in health care, education, social work, and others.

In Jordan, the Ministry of Social Development (MOSD) facilitated training for juvenile officers and shelter staff on trafficking issues, including how to identify victims of trafficking, services to provide to potential victims of trafficking, and the referral process. In addition to the MOSD, Jordan’s Anti-Trafficking Police Unit supported work on training materials for police and social development staff, to include materials on the protection of victims of trafficking during interviewing and investigation. Additionally, the Attorney General expressed support for enhancing the training of the trafficking-focused police and prosecutors in order to improve their use of victim-centered investigation techniques to identify, process, and refer potential victims of trafficking.

The Guyanese Ministerial Task Force on human trafficking held sensitization campaigns monthly throughout the summer of 2017, along with training workshops to frontline officers from the Guyana Police Force and social workers, medical personnel, and more recently, members of the media, on how to treat trafficking cases. The task force collaborated with the Guyana Press Association to train 23 members of the media on the unique differences between human trafficking and migrant smuggling. The training took place in June, and emphasized the importance of reporting cases with sensitivities, especially when those cases involved children.

Community Awareness

In many cases, human trafficking is hidden by the appearance of regularity. In particular, adult victims often interact with others and may even engage in routine transactions in the course of their victimization, yet their compelled service may be imperceptible to the general observer. This is true for both sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Traffickers rely on these conditions, which enable them to control victims even when they interact with others.

Community leaders can take action to increase general awareness by providing tools to the public to help them recognize the indicators of human trafficking, alert authorities to potential trafficking schemes, and empower vulnerable populations to protect themselves.

For example, in 2017, the broadcast company TEGNA rolled out an episodic series investigating sex trafficking of children in the United States and asked each of its 51 local stations to tailor the message to each community, pre-packaging videos, technical support, and research material to make it easier for stations to localize the story.

Community-based organizations such as faith communities, women’s groups, immigrant advocacy groups, youth development groups, labor organizations, or culturally and ethnically based organizations are also well-positioned to raise awareness among their members and to act as a bridge between service providers and those populations that may face challenges in receiving services due to language barriers, age, health issues, gender identity, sexual orientation, or other factors.

For example in Timor-Leste, a small country, most communities are tight-knit. To capitalize on this, an NGO in that country envisioned a community watch program focused on human trafficking. The NGO trains local citizens around the country to monitor their communities, particularly in areas where there is a lack of police or immigration officer presence. The monitors are recruited and vetted through local village councils. The training they receive helps them to identify potential trafficking victims. In 2016, they identified 37 cases that involved trafficking indicators and referred them to police. In 2017, they identified six cases. All of the data collected is shared directly with the Prime Minister’s office to assist with national statistics.

In Bolivia in the municipality of Tarija, the mayor’s office is implementing robust public awareness efforts, including sending 40 specialists to launch prevention efforts in 115 schools in the municipality. In total, they have reached 10,000 students, 1,200 teachers, and 5,000 parents. In addition, the mayor’s office held a training course on identifying trafficking indicators for 28 church leaders in the Tarija municipality. In 2016, the mayor’s office launched a prevention and public awareness program called “It’s about You and Me.” As part of the program, the mayor’s office established partnerships with NGOs to develop an alert system in schools for missing children who may be human trafficking victims and public art programs to raise awareness of human trafficking.

In the United Kingdom, the Clewer Initiative is a three-year project designed to enable Church of England dioceses and wider Church networks to develop strategies to detect modern slavery in their communities and help provide victim support and care. The approach is long-term, tailored to the needs of each diocese, and designed to help build partnerships between the Church and other anti-trafficking stakeholders.

In northern Ghana, one NGO is working with all levels of society, from parents and community groups to the government and private sector, so that child protection, education, and health systems work for all children, but especially those most at risk. The organization deploys a child protection team comprising volunteers who spend time in a bus park in Bolgatanga to identify at-risk children who congregate there to make money carrying luggage or unloading cargo. The volunteer team monitors these children and communicates information back to the police and the Department of Social Welfare.

In addition, individuals in a community may also be able and willing to engage on human trafficking by donating time, talent, and resources. In some places, for example, tattoo artists have donated in-kind assistance by removing or covering “brands” tattooed on victims of sex trafficking by their trafficker; graphic designers have helped authorities create public service announcements about the risks of human trafficking; and businesses have provided job training and placement to victims to help them move on from their experience and forward in their lives.

To increase training and raise community awareness, national governments can:

  • Share information with and educate local officials and community stakeholders about common indicators of human trafficking and typical methods of recruitment.
  • Publicize avenues for reporting human trafficking and seeking assistance.
  • Develop victim-centered training for public servants likely to come into contact with victims of human trafficking.

Developing Processes and Protocols for an Effective Response

To ensure effective support for individuals after they have been identified as victims, protocols should be developed for the delivery of comprehensive short- and long-term care. Ideally, this would mean that regardless of the initial point of identification, whether it be by law enforcement, health care providers, educators, or others, victims would have access to a complete referral network for their immediate needs—safety, food and clothing, shelter, and medical care—as well as their longer-term needs such as housing, legal representation, advocacy, assistance with reintegration, and job placement services.

Few, if any, agencies or organizations have the resources to cover the spectrum of services needed. Service provision can be strengthened by creating processes and protocols that maximize the comparative advantages of varying service providers. Creating a locally appropriate, comprehensive, and system-wide response to human trafficking cannot be done effectively without bringing together individuals from a spectrum of professions to coordinate efforts and to address capacity gaps in victim identification, care, and prevention.

For example, the Danish Centre Against Human Trafficking (CMM), which is a participant in Denmark’s inter-ministerial working group to combat trafficking in persons, has established a nationwide reference system consisting of six regional reference groups that ensure consistency in the national procedure for the identification of and support for potential victims of human trafficking. CMM is also responsible for strengthening cooperation and for knowledge dissemination between NGOs and other civil society organizations operating in the field. Finally, CMM coordinates the gathering of data on victims of human trafficking in Denmark.

In Hungary, the National Police Headquarters received more than $30,000 in EU funding to set up regional equivalents of the National Coordination Mechanism permanently in the four counties most affected by human trafficking. During the project, approximately 260 professionals will be given the opportunity to expand their working relationships through 19 workshops. The project aims to foster cooperation between state institutions, NGOs, and regional stakeholders in small communities.

The National Referral Mechanism in Georgia is widely considered the best in the region in terms of how the mechanism is structured and the implementation of the framework. Potential victims are identified mainly by task forces and mobile units and, in turn, potential victims are referred to either the national police or the Permanent Group, a five-member board comprising NGOs and international organizations. Both authorities have the ability to grant official victim status and full state services and support. This approach creates a much needed alternative to law enforcement controlled identification procedures for victims who do not want to work with state authorities. It also alleviates many law enforcement controlled identification issues like forced cooperation in investigations, penalization, and re-traumatization.

Building from the community assessments, an anti-trafficking working group or task force can then take steps to create a protocol to ensure comprehensive care. A community protocol can be used in a number of ways. It can be a directory of contacts for both government (national law enforcement, immigration services, child protective services) and community (shelters, legal service providers, doctors). In addition, a protocol can outline a step-by-step process to help ensure comprehensive and consistent care for victims. It can also serve to provide information on national, sub-national, and local anti-trafficking laws; and it can outline the importance of a victim-centered and trauma-informed approach, the nuances of trafficking, the factors of control, facts and myths, and indicators, among many other important elements. Finally, it can outline national benefits available to victims of human trafficking, such as immigration relief, and describe how advocates can ensure access to these benefits.

To assist in the development of protocols and processes, national governments can:

  • Set up and fund an anti-trafficking hotline and a national referral mechanism and ensure all relevant officials, professionals, and community groups are aware of these resources.
  • Create a central point for the development of law enforcement and judicial expertise and operational coordination.
  • Consider the long-term needs for victim reintegration into their home communities and closely collaborate with local stakeholders to develop a sustainable care plan.
  • Ensure access to information on promising practices in victim protection, including using a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach.


Across the world, in communities both large and small, individual stories of suffering and injustice make up the ugly mosaic of human trafficking. While many cases share similarities, each is as unique as those forced to endure it, meaning that responses to human trafficking must be both comprehensive and nuanced.

Communities should be emboldened to recognize their own strengths in the fight against human trafficking and take steps to make it a priority. National governments, for their part, should welcome those communities as partners and allies. In some cases, national governments may clear the way for community action; in others, the initiative may rest on the shoulders of a single individual who steps forward to start a conversation at a town hall, provincial assembly, or tribal council meeting.

No matter the impetus, communities are not defenseless in the fight against human trafficking. They are a powerful part of the solution.