Institute dispels myths about human trafficking

By Christie Vogt

Human trafficking is more common than people expect and often occurs in ways the public doesn’t imagine.

So says Andrea Kittleson, anti-trafficking program manager at the International Institute of Minnesota in St. Paul.

Human trafficking, which includes labor trafficking and sex trafficking, is a crime in which a person uses force, fraud or coercion to get another person to provide labor or commercial sex. From agriculture to hotels, nail salons, cleaning services, child care and construction, trafficking occurs in a variety of industries.

Kittleson’s comments came in January during Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a presidential proclamation in effect since 2010 that aims to educate the public about how to recognize and prevent human trafficking.

At the institute, 1694 Como Ave., foreign-born survivors of trafficking can access resources to secure housing, health care, job training and other services, depending on each client’s needs and goals.

“Trafficking survivors are of any age, any gender, any race or ethnicity,” Kittleson said. “It is happening in Minnesota, and it’s not always happening the way that we think.”

Because of the hidden nature of the crime and other barriers to data collection, reliable statistics about human trafficking are difficult to access, Kittleson said.

In her experience, Kittleson has found labor trafficking to be more common than sex trafficking, despite the latter often receiving more public attention.

Traffickers use many techniques to gain and maintain control over their victims, Kittleson said. This can include lying or making false promises, using threats of harm, withholding victims’ immigration or identity documents, or claiming the victim owes the trafficker a debt, often one in which the amount or timeline continues to change.

Due largely to movie portrayals and misinformation on social media, there is a misconception that trafficking situations are always “extreme” or involve violent kidnappings, Kittleson said.

“You can have force, fraud or coercion without physically kidnapping or moving someone,” she explained. At the institute, there have been cases in which individuals believed they had been hired for legitimate jobs, but then unknowingly became part of a trafficking situation.

“[Human trafficking] is not as sensational as it’s always portrayed to be,” Kittleson reiterated. “That’s what makes it so easily hidden.”

Micaela Schuneman, the institute’s senior director of immigration and refugee services, noted another common misunderstanding: that traffickers are always strangers to their victims.

“Often we see that people knew their trafficker, which is one of the reasons why it can be such an insidious crime,” Schuneman said. “People don’t necessarily realize they’re being trafficked when it starts because it’s someone they trust. That’s another reason why it is underreported and underprosecuted.”

Human trafficking is also under-reported because, in some cases, survivors are unaware that their rights are being violated, Kittleson said. With foreign-born survivors, limited English language skills can also hinder their ability to advocate for themselves, she noted.

Physical isolation also plays a role in keeping trafficking hidden, Schuneman added. The institute has seen labor trafficking cases, for example, where survivors were living on the farms where they were working.

Discerning consumers can help thwart traffickers’ efforts, Schuneman said. She uses home projects as an example, noting that the people working on your roof could be trafficking victims.

“It’s one thing that people can have on their radar when they’re hiring contractors,” she noted. “You’re looking at a bid, and you wonder, ‘Gosh, why is this one bid so much lower than other bids?’”

Several years ago, the institute encountered a case where a contractor failed to carry workers’ compensation insurance and was thus underbidding all its competitors. Ultimately, the contractor was found to be trafficking its workers as well.

“The attorney general’s office has made (investigating) wage theft and labor trafficking a priority,” Schuneman said. “So if, as a consumer, you do have concerns, you can make a report to the attorney general’s office.”

Community members can also help combat trafficking by spreading awareness about the issue, Kittleson added. “Think before you share,” she cautioned about social media content, and confirm that the information is from reputable organizations.

Safe Harbor is one local example of a legitimate source of information, she said, in addition to the federal Office for Victims of Crime and the Office on Trafficking in Persons.

If you or someone you know may be a victim of human trafficking, the institute (651-377-8602) can connect you to appropriate resources. The National Trafficking Hotline can also direct victims to services or accept reports of suspected trafficking; call 1-888-373-7888, text 233733 or visit 

Christie Vogt is a regular contributor to the Bugle and a former employee of the International Institute of Minnesota.

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