In Honor of “World Day Against Human Trafficking”

Trafficking Situation Worldwide and in Missouri

By Nicole Caldwell, Undergraduate Student: B.A. in French with a minor in Political Science, University of Missouri in St. Louis (UMSL); Gateway Human Trafficking Intern

At this very moment, it is estimated that more than 40 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking; defined as ‘the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of a person through force, abduction, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of forced labor or sexual exploitation.’(1) In other words, one becomes a victim of human trafficking when they are exploited for sexual purposes or used to extract labor through the use of fraud, force, or coercion.

There are a variety of misconceptions about human trafficking. It is not necessary for someone to physically move locations in order to qualify as a trafficking victim. A victim can be exploited within their own residence without ever needing to leave their home for the crime to occur. It is often the case that traffickers know their victim or have a personal connection with them; many traffickers are intimate partners, family members, or friends. Because of this, many survivors might not realize they have been trafficked and do not identify themselves as victims in need of assistance. In addition, not all traffickers use physical violence. Many use more subtle, psychologically abusive tactics- known as coercion- in order to manipulate victims. Someone can still be trafficked without ever being physically abused.

It is often hard to identify trafficking warning signs because these signs are more subtle than media portrayals would suggest. In 2017, service providers ranging from medical professionals to juvenile justice system officials identified the following as the most common signs present in trafficking victims from their experience: mental health concerns (depression, anxiety, mood disorders), low self-esteem, recurrent feelings of shame or guilt, a lack of communal and social support, and a general distrust of others (2). Service providers might also look out for the following signs present in trafficking victims: frequent sexually transmitted infections, a significantly older romantic partner, expensive products the person might not be able to afford, poor dental hygiene (this often occurs due to malnutrition), and complaints about a controlling employer.

No region is immune to human trafficking. It threatens our own community in St. Louis. In 2019, 422 trafficking survivors were identified within Missouri and the Metro St. Louis region (this includes portions of Illinois). Most survivors were sex trafficked and between the ages of 18-25 (3). However, almost 25% of victims were children between the ages of 15-17. A notable portion of survivors were between 36-45 years old, mostly experiencing labor exploitation. In addition, 94% of survivors were considered poor or working class (4). Gender minorities and persons with non-heterosexual orientations were also overrepresented. Victims with non-heteronormative orientations and/or victims from ethnic, religious, and gender minority groups might not be treated as victims. Overall, the St. Louis Region reported that just over one quarter of survivors in the study were White/Caucasian, nearly 60% were Black/African American, 3.5% were Hispanic/Latinx, 1 was Asian, 1 was another race, and 7% were Multiracial. This shows that in the St. Louis Region, Black/African American people are significantly disproportionately trafficked, showing a distinct regional pattern of victimization. While composing just 23% of the population of the St. Louis Region, Black/African American people compose 59.6% of trafficking survivors—well over double the proportionate rate (5).

Groups mentioned above face a heightened risk of being trafficked and might have existing trauma from previous encounters with authorities that inhibits their ability to trust service providers. Likewise, socioeconomically disadvantaged people are particularly vulnerable to traffickers that might exploit their desperation for basic needs such as food, clothes, and shelter.

Perhaps the most devastating statistic relates to the characteristics of traffickers. 28% of traffickers were the survivor’s romantic partner and 18% were family members. 22% of survivors were trafficked as a means of survival to provide for themselves and others including their children. Another 20% were exploited by a pimp (6). Service providers expressed a dire need for more transitional housing and shelters, mental health services, drug rehabilitation programs, and cultural sensitivity and awareness training to assist victims.

Then, while there is no data to explain the effect of COVID-19 pandemic on human trafficking yet, the history has proven that post pandemics trafficking of vulnerable people increases drastically. Data demonstrated that human trafficking, child marriage, and sexual exploitation and abuse are exacerbated within crisis contexts. The COVID-19 pandemic follows the same trends by increasing vulnerability and impacting the ability of communities to address crime. And, yet, the COVID-19 pandemic is recognized as one of the worst outbreaks in human history.

Service providers cannot stop trafficking alone. All citizens in the world, United States, Missouri, and the Metro St. Louis region must work together to develop awareness surrounding human trafficking within our own communities and abroad. July 30th, “World Day Against Human Trafficking,” serves as a reminder that human trafficking afflicts each and every community in the world. As a global community, we must learn the trafficking signs and risk factors in order to protect one another and stop human trafficking.

National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP to 233733 (BeFree)

Learn more about human trafficking here.


1. “Overview of Human Trafficking and NIJ’s Role”, National Institute of Justice, Feb. 25th, 2019.

2. “Examining Commonly Reported Sex Trafficking Indicators from Practioners Perspectives: Findings from a Pilot Study” by Gerassi, Lara et a.l.

3. Nichols, Andrea & Preble, Kathleen & Cox, Ashley, “Human Trafficking in Missouri and Metro East St. Louis: Provider Based Needs Assessment and Demographic Snapshot,” 2019

4. Nichols et al, 2019

5. Nichols et al, 2019

6. Nichols et al, 2019

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