By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
There is a common misconception that human trafficking is only a problem in major cities under the lights of a red-light district. However, rural areas, like urban areas, are also vulnerable to human trafficking.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the International Labor Organization estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of victims of human trafficking in the United States. Human trafficking can occur with both adults and children. The victims commonly have diverse backgrounds, and cases of human trafficking occur in all 50 states.
The Differences between Urban and Rural Human Trafficking
In rural America, there are some human trafficking vulnerabilities that differ from large cities. One of the biggest vulnerabilities of human trafficking in rural America involves geographical distances from those organizations that may be able to intervene on the behalf of victims.
For instance, large cities are typically accompanied by large police forces that provide more police presence in urban areas. This lack of a police presence in rural areas, coupled with fewer witnesses to report suspicious activity, has led to more human trafficking cases in less urban areas.
In rural America, it can be very difficult for victims to flee their captor in rural human trafficking cases. In cases where a victim is held in a home for human trafficking, it may be too far for the victim to escape and to receive help due to a large geographical distance from others who can provide assistance.
Another vulnerability is that rural areas often have less employment opportunities. As a result, victims are more likely to agree to sex trafficking or forced labor to survive financially.
Rural areas also have fewer social services, such as clinics or medical facilities, that may aid in detecting possible human trafficking cases. While crime rates may be low in some rural areas, this low crime rate can present a challenge in the detection of rural human trafficking victims. If ordinary citizens are not on the lookout for criminal activity within their communities, for instance, they could miss signs of human trafficking.
Another challenge associated with rural areas is a stigmatization that may exist if someone comes forward about being a victim. Small towns typically have less anonymity than large cities.
While it may already be a challenge coming forward as a victim of human trafficking in a large city, small towns make it even more challenging to disclose a crime because everyone knows everyone. In a small community, the human trafficking may not only be the perpetuator, but they may also be the victim’s neighbor, classmate’s uncle, or someone that everyone in town knows and respects.
In rural human trafficking cases, around 26% of victims are associated with labor trafficking and 74% are victims of sex trafficking. Rural victims are commonly women and girls, minors, runaways, and temporary visa holders.
Risk Factors of Rural Human Trafficking
The risk factors associated with rural human trafficking include prior physical or sexual abuse, drug abuse, and economic problems. Recruitment in rural areas can occur in local bars, false job advertisements, familial recruitment, social media sites, truck stops and commercial sex venues.
Overall, rural human trafficking has some unique characteristics that make detecting it much more challenging. To prevent rural trafficking in the future, it is important that schoolteachers, medical professionals, and police officers remain aware of the threat of human trafficking in rural areas.
It is equally essential that these professionals remain proactive in monitoring for indicators of human trafficking and report suspicious activity to authorities who are capable of investigating possible human trafficking cases. These authorities may include state law enforcement or local law enforcement that has received training in investigating human trafficking cases.