Vulnerable Groups

A special 2008-2010 report by the United States Department of Justice claims eighty percent of sex trafficking victims were identified as U.S. citizens, while most confirmed labor trafficking victims were identified as undocumented or qualified aliens. Collecting data is important to gain a better understanding of the breadth of these deplorable practices and how to end to them. However, these numbers are only estimates. Identifying potential trafficking victims is challenging as these crimes are cloaked in secrecy and recruiting practices continue to evolve.

Despite discrepancies, certain groups of people have been found to be especially vulnerable. Learn more about the circumstances surrounding these beings:

Undocumented Foreign Nationals, Temporary Visa Holders or Qualified Aliens

Aliens seeking a better life may travel to another country. Those without legal documents often pay smugglers a fee for safe transport only to be informed the fee has been raised upon arrival. They are then coerced into labor or sex trafficking to pay off the debt.

Traffickers take advantage of aliens with proper documentation as well. By confiscating or destroying legal documents, they make victims fearful of the very authorities who could help release them from captivity.

Captors will use any means of control necessary. Their manipulation is made easier by foreign nationals unaware of local customs and isolated by a language barrier. Women, raised in countries where they are regarded with less status than men, may feel even more trapped.


Runaways flee from dysfunctional families where addiction and physical, sexual and verbal threats are the norm. Constant chaos leaves them with compromised self-esteem and coping skills. Limited age and life experience makes it challenging, or impossible, for them to support themselves financially.

These young people are easy prey for traffickers. It’s not difficult to see how these youth might be enticed by promises of romance, shelter, food or protection. Believing they have no other options available, many turn to the commercial sex industry as a means of support.

It’s important to note, the legal definition of sex trafficking does not require coercion in cases involving minors. They are not of legal age and cannot give consent to participate in sexual activities.

Children in Foster Care and Juvenile Justice System

Children placed in foster care have already suffered neglect, abuse and/or abandonment. They have no choice but to build their lives on shaky foundations. These compromised foundations may become more fragile when children are placed in a foreign home where they have no sense of belonging or in which abuse begins again. Children fleeing foster care are targets for traffickers.

The National center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reports that one in five of the 11,800 runaways reported in 2015 were likely sex trafficking victims. Seventy-four percent of these likely sex trafficking victims were in the care of social services or foster care when they went missing.

Once trafficked, these children have a hard time determining who can be trusted. Youths in the juvenile justice system may have already developed a contentious relationship with law enforcement. Children, coached by captors to fear the police and lie about their age, are reluctant to ask for help.

LGBT Youth

In a society where they often feel misunderstood, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth face substantial difficulties. Growing up in a healthy, supportive home can alleviate much of this anguish. Sadly, for youth with less supportive families, navigating the outside world can be daunting–even dangerous.

Many LGBT youth are forced out of their homes when their families are unable to accept them. These young people are regarded as “throwaways” and the consequences of these actions can be tragic.

The Administration for Children and Families, operated under the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), reports LGBT youth, and those questioning their sexuality, account for a disproportionate share of the runaway and homeless youth population. Although these individuals only account for three to five percent of the population, they compose up to 40 percent of the runaway and homeless youth population. It’s estimated 26 percent of these young people were rejected by their families and thrown out of their homes.

Living in a State of Poverty or Homelessness

Living in a state of poverty, prolonged unemployment or homelessness leaves people with limited options. In deep despair, they resort to extreme measures to ensure survival.

Desperate families, under the impression their children will experience a better life and receive an education, well-paying job or apprenticeship, unwittingly release their loved ones into the care of predatory labor or sex traffickers. Traffickers know single mothers and pregnant woman, trying to provide for their families, may be more easily exploited.

Some children are raised in families who engage in multi-generational pimping and prostituting. Still other children are knowingly sold by their family members to traffickers.


Those with intellectual or mental disabilities find it difficult to read social cues and are easier to manipulate. Both labor and sex traffickers take advantage of these weaknesses. Traffickers may tell parents without resources they will provide work for their children. Traffickers coerce victims by plying them with drugs or withholding needed medications.

Physical disabilities leave people incapable of protecting themselves as well. For example, being deaf, mute or both makes it hard to communicate. Victims may feel powerless to ask for help.

Civil Unrest, Natural Disasters, Areas of High Crime or Political Corruption

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says, “Measured against the world’s population of 7.4 billion people, one in every 113 people [or 65.3 million people] globally is now either an asylum seeker, internally displaced or a refugee–putting them at a level of risk for which UNHCR knows no precedent.”

Religious affiliations, political instability and war-torn nations all place people in the midst of conflict. Natural disasters leave citizens without protection from the elements and those who seek to do harm. These precarious circumstances put humans at risk of being trafficked. In war-torn countries, children may be recruited as soldiers.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence and trafficking both utilize threats and manipulation to maintain control. Those suffering through domestic violence endure physical, verbal and sexual abuse. Women who escape these damaging relationships must fend for themselves. They often leave without money or employment opportunities, making them an easy mark for traffickers. There are also cases of men who traffic their own partners as a further means of control or to supplement an income.

Struggling with Substance Abuse

The use of drugs can make children and adults vulnerable to trafficking through impaired judgment and motor control. An altered state leaves people more prone to indulge in risky behaviors. Addiction to drugs is often used as a means of control by traffickers. To pay off a drug debt or avoid withdrawal, captives are forced to work or perform sex acts.

Native Americans

Both poverty and a lack of understanding of the legal system can put Native Americans at risk for exploitation. Reservation members may fully understand the Indian treaties considered the “supreme law of their land” yet be unaware of other citizen rights protecting them in the United States. Although tribes are self-governing entities, Native Americans are granted additional rights of citizenship, as long as they are born in the United States.

In the January 2016 Annual Meeting of the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (PITF), Secretary Sally Jewell said, “Some of our most vulnerable citizens are our first citizens, and those are Native Americans, especially in regions where there is a lot of economic activity. The Bakken oil and gas boom in the Dakotas has created huge problems on Indian reservations there. Casinos have become, in some cases, a platform for non-Indian perpetrators of these crimes to victimize our nation’s first people. It’s a significant issue.”