Some 57,700 people are living in conditions that constitute slavery in the United States right now, according to report released today, with undocumented immigrants, refugees, and homeless LGBT youth are particularly vulnerable to abusive conditions.
The Global Slavery Index estimates that worldwide, 45.8 million people are living in some form of modern-day slavery–whether that's forced agricultural or industrial labor, sex trafficking, or forced marriage.
The report, published yearly by an anti-slavery group called the Walk Free Foundation, ranked the U.S. 52nd out of 167 countries in terms of its protections against slavery and human trafficking. While modern-day slavery might not sound like something that happens on American shores, the disenfranchised face a serious risk of being exploited. Part of the problem is that they're less likely to seek or receive support from law enforcement. That includes immigrants who may be taken advantage of because they worry about being deported and young homeless LGBT people who could feel pressured into "survival sex" for a safe place to stay.
"The U.S. attracts undocumented workers, migrants, and refugees, who can be at particular risk of vulnerability to human trafficking upon their arrival and during their stay in the U.S.," the report says. "Research undertaken on vulnerable migrant labourer populations in San Diego, California, and in North Carolina suggests that these populations often include undocumented seasonal labourers who experience significant language barriers, cultural non-assimilation, and fear of deportation."
The Obama administration has taken some specific steps to address human trafficking, like establishing the Office on Trafficking in Persons to raise public awareness and provide services to victims of human trafficking. But the GSI report says that what could really help is to curb the underlying reasons that people are preyed upon:
Poverty and social instability among specific populations – namely undocumented people, homeless persons, and runaway youth – are some of many vitiating factors contributing to the risk of slavery in the U.S. These factors motivate workers in manual sectors, such as manufacturing, construction, and farming to work in dangerous conditions. They also play a role in prompting minors to engage in survival sex.
Some undocumented immigrants fleeing traumatic circumstances in their home countries are already in a vulnerable position, according to an advocacy group called the Freedom Network which works specifically to fight human trafficking and labor abuses against immigrants to the U.S.
Aside from fearing contact with law enforcement, immigrants on temporary visas or with no documents at all are at a disadvantage because they may not be aware of their rights, the Freedom Network wrote in a 2013 report. "They exploit working conditions knowing that workers most likely do not understand their rights and the applicable laws, may not speak the language, and therefore, would not speak out and risk retaliation."
The advocacy group suggests that providing a path to legalization for undocumented workers is one step to preventing worker abuses, along with giving immigrants of every status more access to information on their rights, and access to help from law enforcement without the threat of repercussions.
Young homeless LGBT people who have left their homes after facing discrimination and a lack of support from their families or communities are left in a similarly disempowering situation. A national survey of youth homelessness service providers found in 2012 that somewhere between 30% and 43% of homeless young people served by those housing programs identified as LGBT.
Covenant House, a private child care agency based in New York which provides resources and shelter to homeless youth, found that one in four of the 174 young people they helped and then surveyed said they had been a victim of sex trafficking or "survival sex." The six LGBT youth who were included in the random sample all said they'd been involved in one or the other. Like the other young people included in the Covenant House survey, they said being LGBT exposed them to more discrimination and made it even harder for them to find help.
While the U.S. is ahead of some other countries with severe trafficking problems, there are tens of thousands of people whose human rights are being abused, the report suggests. The approximate numbers in the index were calculated using global surveys conducted with the Gallup group, also referring to a combination of reports from governments, non-profits, and social services groups. The report says that because most cases of human trafficking likely go unreported, actual figures are probably much higher.