Human trafficking is happening in communities worldwide, including here in Maine. The experience robs people of their freedom and independence and – like homelessness, hunger and poverty – severely affects the physical and mental well-being of survivors. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month and serves as a reminder to educate communities about this exploitation and support survivors on their path toward recovery, healing and justice.

“Children and adults of all genders are forced by sexual, physical and psychological coercion or violence to do all kinds of work, including farm labor, domestic service, sex work and restaurant and hospitality service,” HEAL Trafficking CEO Dr. Hanni Stoklosa writes. Atjanan Charoensiri/

Traffickers exploit vulnerability wherever it exists, and that looks different in different places. Many people think of human trafficking as an urban problem, but trafficking has a footprint everywhere – in both rural and urban communities. Children and adults of all genders are forced by sexual, physical and psychological coercion or violence to do all kinds of work, including farm labor, domestic service, sex work and restaurant and hospitality service. There is no common profile for trafficking victims; trafficking doesn’t discriminate based on race or ethnicity, age, gender, origin, socioeconomic or education level or any other factor.

One key circumstance that can make people vulnerable to trafficking, or to staying in a trafficking situation, is housing instability or homelessness. For people who do not have access to permanent, stable housing – like adults who are homeless because of substance use or mental health issues, or runaway and homeless youth – a trafficking situation may be the only thing keeping them from sleeping outside on a cold Maine night. As an emergency medicine provider and CEO of HEAL Trafficking, I have met many people who are being trafficked, and their most immediate request is not for legal assistance or prosecution of their trafficker – it’s for a place to stay.

Migrant and domestic workers are also at high risk for trafficking. Throughout rural New England, traffickers exploit migrant workers through the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program. Folks who work seasonally on blueberry, cranberry, pumpkin or Christmas tree farms are at higher risk of being exploited by traffickers. Many of these workers come from other countries and are desperate to provide for their families while not knowing their rights in an unfamiliar country. There is a great fear of deportation, whether they have a visa or not.

The opioid epidemic also has direct links to trafficking. As we see numerous cases of opioid use disorder in our emergency rooms, we’re learning that traffickers are exploiting these addictions, for both labor or sex trafficking, in rural and urban environments.

Those of us who work in health care continue to build knowledge about the trafficking victims that come through our doors and how to provide empathy and support. When a medical provider encounters a potential trafficking victim, the first step is to create an open door for help if and when somebody is ready. In my experience as an emergency physician, it’s important to have a private, nonjudgmental conversation that lets someone know where they can go for help, whether coming back to my health system, calling a trafficking hotline or reaching out to a local organization providing trauma-informed care like Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Services. Our job is to plant seeds of hope, education and empowerment and share our knowledge of how to access valuable and potentially life-saving information.

Human trafficking is a public health issue. Instead of trying to arrest our way out of it, we must recognize and repair the systems that create vulnerabilities to trafficking – vulnerabilities like homelessness, hunger and poverty. We need a more comprehensive and preventative approach to stop trafficking from happening in the first place. We need health systems to establish protocols to identify both sex and labor trafficking, as well as to educate medical professionals on how to combat all forms of human trafficking. And we need to connect survivors to long-term health and mental health treatment to help them heal. If we focus on these systemic conditions, we can bring an end to human trafficking.

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