The Untold Threat of Hurricane Florence and Other Natural Disasters

Human trafficking is a crime that cuts across all races, ethnicities, genders, and socio-economic classes. Traffickers prey on the vulnerabilities of their intended victims, depriving them of their human dignity and worth for the purposes of their own profit.

Real progress has been made across the United States, with law enforcement becoming more sophisticated in their ability to detect, interrupt and dismantle trafficking operations. Sadly, that means that traffickers have become more opportunistic. And in many cases, traffickers use the chaos and disorder that is brought about by disasters and emergencies to find new victims and exploit them for their own personal gain.

Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and other powerful displays of Mother Nature’s awesome capabilities, introduce many challenges to the communities where they strike. In recent catastrophes, we have seen many lives lost. Power grids are taken offline. Businesses are shut down, jobs and livelihoods are interrupted, basic needs such as food, shelter, and clean water go unmet.

Such destruction and loss introduce heightened levels of despair, hopelessness, sorrow, and frustration into a community. It is these emotional states that traffickers seek out, and in which they find new victims to exploit. And with law enforcement and other government resources diverted to provide emergency support, there is little attention left to identify and thwart trafficking.

Eric Bales, lead author of the Global Slavery Index report, states that the problem is not necessarily as dramatic as “traffickers swooping in hours after a cyclone, but rather a situation where families lose their homes, land, and possessions as a result of a natural disaster. In their vulnerable state, they fall prey to the blandishments of traffickers.”1

Traffickers will develop the specific lures they intend to use based on the needs of those that have been most effected and subsequently most vulnerable. These lures may include promises of employment, housing, relocation, or simply food and clean water. Desperation will often times suppress a sense of good judgement and allow the intended victim to believe the promises of the trafficker. So what is the solution?

Most important, leaders must recognize that a natural disaster will mean that community members are at risk, and those risks include human trafficking. Response planning should include immediate education and training as a general precursor to natural disasters. This training should include those professionals most likely to encounter, identify, or respond to instances of human trafficking.

However, the educational awareness should not be limited to professionals. The general population, those that will ultimately be targeted by the traffickers, should also receive awareness training regarding how traffickers operate, especially during times of crisis. Awareness is the key to prevention.

Harvard’s Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research reminds us that natural disasters are prime environments to invite in trafficking, “raising the need for a cogent international response to human trafficking in complex emergencies.”2

Traffickers are lying in wait to exploit these vulnerable populations, particularly when the social services designed to protect and support them are otherwise overwhelmed. Incorporating awareness and other prevention strategies during the period of recovery serves to overcome the risk of traffickers targeting those lives that were disrupted and displaced – diminishing the threat that lingers in the aftermath of destruction.

1 Priyali Sur, “Climate Change and Human Trafficking: A Deadly Combination,” The Diplomat. Retrieved
September 12, 2018.
2 Harvard University Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research. “Human Trafficking.” Retrieved
September 12, 2018.