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Martha’s Vineyard Migrants Bring Needed Attention to Human Trafficking

Kristen Abrams is the Senior Director of the McCain Institute’s Combatting Human Trafficking Program. Dr. Evelyn Farkas is the Executive Director of the McCain Institute.

Two weeks ago, about 50 mostly Venezuelan migrant adults and children were lured onto planes in Texas with promises of expedited work papers, housing and jobs in Boston. They were flown at Florida taxpayer expense, not to Boston, but to Martha’s Vineyard where there was no housing nor jobs waiting.  Numerous media outlets, commentators and policymakers have alleged that the movement of these people constitutes “human trafficking.” While these migrants seem to have been used as political pawns, it is too soon to conclude that this was indeed a case of human trafficking.

Human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery, involves traffickers using force, fraud, or coercion to control a victim for the purpose of commercial sex or labor. Put simply, human trafficking is the deprivation of an individual’s freedom for profit.  Notably, unlike other forms of trafficking or smuggling, human trafficking does not require movement or border crossing.  It’s the lack of freedom and the profit motive that count.

In this situation, it appears that at least some of the migrants were tricked, defrauded or coerced into boarding planes bound for a new destination. What is unclear, however, is whether these migrants were tricked, defrauded, or coerced for the purpose of commercial sex or labor to benefit the alleged trafficker.

Whether these situations prove to be a chargeable case of human trafficking, or potentially some other serious crime, remains to be seen.  Without more information, we caution others from using the term ‘human trafficking’ to describe this situation. Using erroneous words is a form of misinformation, sometimes used to exacerbate social conflict and often confusing the true issue at hand.

The dangers of using of mis-and dis-information is well known in the anti-human trafficking space. Several years ago, Q/Anon spread disinformation about human trafficking on social media using the hashtag #SaveTheChildren. This disinformation campaign diverted already limited resources, overwhelming the national human trafficking hotline with bogus reports of trafficking. The Q’Anon campaign sowed conflict throughout American cities.  It even led to physical violence in Washington, DC, when a gunman showed up at a pizza parlor looking to free children in a nonexistent basement who were supposedly being trafficked in the sex industry. (At the time, the McCain Institute joined with dozens of other organizations denouncing Q’Anon and its dangerous, untrue human trafficking messages).

The Martha’s Vineyard airlift episode should provide a warning and opportunity for raising awareness regarding actual human trafficking.

Migrants are at heightened risk of exploitation.  They arrive often in this country with limited English proficiency or awareness of our nation’s laws.  They have little to no access to support networks and basic resources, and uncertain job prospects.  Using coercive tactics such as offers of employment, or food, shelter, and other basic necessities, traffickers target and take advantage of refugees and people on the move. Some migrants are pressed into a range of ‘jobs’ — from agricultural positions to sex work– and are sometimes trapped until they “pay off debts” (which likely will never happen) and restricted from communicating with anyone who may be able to help.

Data released last week from the International Labor Organization, the International Organization for Migrants and the NGO Walk Free emphasize the magnitude of the real problem of human trafficking: an estimated 28 million people around the world were forced to work against their will in 2021. Here in the United States, a country with a great deal of immigration and internal migration, we don’t even know the extent of the problem. We lack comprehensive data on the prevalence of human trafficking in the U.S..

We are long overdue for significant new investment in data and research to better understand the complexity of human trafficking in our own country.  Nationwide, we need prevention programs designed to reach populations vulnerable to exploitation – like refugees, asylum-seekers and other migrants. We must support law enforcement efforts to pursue human traffickers, in particular for forced labor offenses which are woefully under-investigated and under-prosecuted in this country.  And when survivors are able to leave exploitative situations, we should ensure they are able to access safe housing, legal services, medical care and exploitation-free jobs.

These are just some of the actions policy experts, practitioners, advocates, government leaders, private sector partners and others can take to address the nuanced, multi-faceted crime of human trafficking. But it must start with accurate information, free of politics and sensationalization.


DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Kristen Abrams and Evelyn Farkas
Publish Date
October 13, 2022