Creating an Effective, Collaborative Human Trafficking Response with the Available Resources in Rural Communities

18 September 2019
Research Innovation

Madison Murphy Barney  | MPH Candidate, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Christina A. Sambor  | Attorney and Founding Director, North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force

Most research on human trafficking is conducted within large urban communities. Yet in the United States, 75 per cent of counties are classified as rural, with one quarter of Americans living in communities with populations lower than 2,500. There is a need for research in rural settings. That need is illuminated by the experience of North Dakota during the Bakken oil boom, which illustrates the limits of focusing anti-trafficking awareness and research on urban settings.

The Bakken oil boom brought 90,000 workers, mostly male, to a sparsely populated region of northwestern North Dakota to work in oil sector-related jobs. Spikes in overall crime rates occurred, along with an observed—but largely undocumented—increase in human trafficking. Victims of human trafficking identified in North Dakota came from all over the United States. Yet the resources available to identify and support these victims were at first almost non-existent, until North Dakota engaged in significant federally-funded capacity-building efforts.

Absent a catalytic event like an oil boom, rural areas may be less likely than urban areas to receive the training and allocate adequate funding to identification of human trafficking victims and their support. Furthermore, data collected in North Dakota since 2016 shows that human trafficking continues to be a significant problem, even post-boom. The North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force has continued to serve approximately 100 victims of human trafficking per year, in a state with a population of roughly 760,000 people.

North Dakota’s experience is illustrative of the challenges faced by rural areas in identifying and addressing human trafficking. Many rural areas are agricultural with seasonal industries that rely on a fluctuating work force.  This often leaves victims isolated from supportive networks and unable to access public transportation to travel to areas where support is available.  The use of the internet—especially social media—as a tool for recruitment and trafficking is prevalent in rural areas. Individuals who are looking for opportunities to leave rural areas, travel or gain employment elsewhere are often susceptible to online coercion.

The stigma and shame of sex work and forced labour make it difficult for trafficked individuals to seek and secure services. This problem is only amplified with the lack of anonymity in rural areas. Due to the size and nature of rural communities, it is possible that service providers and medical professionals will know the trafficker and may even be tied to the trafficker in some way. Service providers may find it difficult to maintain neutrality when dealing with human trafficking. Accordingly, it is important to consider the need for referrals to outside neutral parties when possible. This is especially true in healthcare settings, as trafficked individuals may have contact with medical professionals, and few others.

Silhouette of person riding tractor. Photo by Spencer Pugh/Unsplash.

North Dakota’s experience with creating human trafficking responses illustrates approaches that rural states can take to increase their capacity to identify and respond to human trafficking. In North Dakota, the model involves three core components:

  • multi-disciplinary teams across the state;
  • a task force director, navigators and lead law enforcement agents coordinating the activities of the task force; and
  • service provision by partner agencies — local law enforcement and victim services providers.

A comprehensive approach to fighting human trafficking in rural communities requires many parties to communicate and build on existing relationships between relevant agencies and service providers, particularly because law enforcement, healthcare providers and other service providers in rural areas tend to be less specialized than providers in urban areas. Having a community Navigator or point-person for connecting trafficked individuals to services is especially useful in rural settings, where services may be more dispersed. Additionally, Navigators serve as points of contact for those working with trafficking victims, or those looking to learn more about human trafficking.

The role also coordinates training and technical assistance, state-wide. This approach is also used in Minnesota. It is important that all relevant actors conduct trainings throughout rural areas to increase awareness of human trafficking and formalize partnerships with trafficking-specific organizations located in urban communities.

In sum, national and international anti-trafficking efforts must better understand and reflect the impact of trafficking in rural areas and small cities. More investment in research on the prevalence and characteristics of rural trafficking and on related best practices is sorely needed. Leaders in the field should cross-train one another on their respective urban and rural contexts. The cultures, challenges, and opportunities specific to rural areas must be understood before strategizing specifically on how organizations should address trafficking in these areas. Well resourced metropolitan NGOs should strategically connect with local leaders in nearby or outlying service areas. Building relationships with and trafficking-specific competency in rural providers, and involving rural providers and survivors in policy-level discussions is an important first step in building a more robust response to human trafficking in rural communities.

Christina Sambor is a practicing attorney in North Dakota and was the founding Director of the North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force. She focuses her work on reducing gender-based violence through advocacy-based systems change.

Murphy Barney is an MPH Candidate in the department of Global Health and Population and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her work is centered around trafficking in rural areas of the United States, community wellness, belonging and inclusion.

This post is part of a series of posts on the Forum brokered by HEAL Trafficking.

This article has been prepared by Christina Sambor and Murphy Barney as contributors to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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