Prevention as Preemption: Primary Prevention as a Framework to Constructively Fight Trafficking

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By Aneesa Shaikh

Preventative actions are of vital importance to our anti-trafficking efforts because they not only confront immediate risks, but also establish long-term solutions that eliminate vulnerabilities while also strengthening resilience for the future. Current US trafficking policy focuses primarily on secondary and tertiary prevention—or measures that prevent re-exploitation after survivors experience it. While these measures protect survivors’ lives in the immediate aftermath and long after human trafficking has occurred, they fail to address the root causes of the issue. In order to be effective, prevention strategies against human trafficking must empower and elevate survivors, while addressing the underlying causes of trafficking in a preventative rather than punitive manner. 

Disregard for human rights makes many individuals and communities vulnerable to trafficking. Systemic vulnerabilities to exploitation are formed by social, economic, and legal structures that are influenced by life events, history of abuse, and gender disparities. Traffickers frequently take advantage of the needs of potential victims, which may be emotional—such as love and belonging—or basic physical necessities including food and shelter. 

Primary prevention involves proactive measures, such as education, economic empowerment, legal reforms, and community engagement, to create conditions that are resistant to human trafficking. To improve our efforts to prevent trafficking before it begins, we must prioritize primary prevention efforts, work together across movements to end violence, and pursue policy changes that address root causes.

An Overview of Primary Prevention

Primary prevention stands at the crossroads of human rights and public health-based approaches to human trafficking. These initiatives, which address socio-ecological determinants of health—underlying issues that make people vulnerable to trafficking—are referred to as “primary” methods of prevention. 

From a human rights standpoint, primary prevention seeks to strengthen community networks, expand education, and uphold legal protections for vulnerable populations. These are addressed by public health initiatives that work to improve health and safety services, youth protection, and access to health and mental health care. Addressing these variables not only prevents risk in the first place, but also places resources behind addressing deeply rooted structural challenges that inhibit the success of anti-trafficking efforts. 

Push and Pull Factors

Primary prevention in human trafficking involves strategies aimed towards preventing abuse from occurring in the first place. These measures mitigate risk factors linked to human trafficking by reducing vulnerabilities in communities and empowering individuals to make informed decisions about their personal health and safety. These can be categorized broadly into two types of measures: risk reduction and improved protections.

Risk-reducing measures address the push factors of human trafficking, such as the social, environmental, and systematic risk elements that create vulnerabilities within communities. Instability in housing, involvement in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems, substance use, undocumented immigration status, and other variables influencing health and safety are examples of potential risk factors. As a result, key prevention strategies for minimizing these vulnerabilities might include increased wages, affordable housing and childcare, safe jobs, and universal healthcare.

Factors that promote protective measures are aimed at pull factors, or proactive efforts put in place to protect individuals’ choice, safety, and resilience prior to exploitation. These measures include supportive adult relationships, the availability of extracurricular activities, comprehensive sex education programs, awareness of legal rights, knowledge of online safety and reporting mechanisms, and many others.

Secondary and Tertiary Prevention

Secondary and tertiary prevention efforts, which focus on providing crisis services and ongoing support to survivors during and after their experience with human trafficking, are the main emphasis of US human trafficking policy. In practice, secondary measures include identifying potential victims and addressing immediate needs such as emergency housing, healthcare, and mental healthcare. Tertiary measures, which are longer-term, include post-victimization services like long-term housing, legal assistance, counseling, and job assistance. 

Secondary and tertiary prevention, however, may also include counterproductive practices such as law enforcement-led raids and rescues or sensationalized, inaccurate, and misleading public awareness campaigns about human trafficking. Misidentification, racial profiling, and harmful non-consensual law enforcement interactions are all potential outcomes of such programs. These actions have negative impacts on current victims and survivors of human trafficking by compounding trauma and undermining trust in social support systems.

Primary prevention targets risk and enhances individual autonomy before harm has occurred, and as such, it is both significant and distinct from secondary and tertiary prevention. Through the integration of public health and social justice, individual autonomy, security, and adaptability are prioritized, irrespective of the experience of human trafficking. By addressing the root causes of the issue, these practices benefit everyone by creating safer, informed, and resilient communities.

FNUSA’s Approach

In order to adopt safe and successful approaches to address the factors that contribute to human trafficking, we must address critical variables that diminish vulnerability to abuse and exploitation. In light of this, FNUSA and its partner organizations advocate for policy changes that address the root causes of trafficking, such as:

  1. Reducing Poverty by Increasing Living Wages
  2. Reducing Housing Instability Through Access to Affordable Housing
  3. Improving Access to Reliable, Affordable Childcare
  4. Universal Health Care
  5. Comprehensive Sex Education
  6. Decriminalization of Sex Work 
  7. Criminal Justice Reform
  8. Increased Worker Protections and Support
  9. Family-Support Based Child Welfare Programs
  10. Fair Immigration Policies and Protections