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  1. Science and Technology Directorate
  2. News Room
  3. S&T Combatting Human Trafficking Using Social Science

S&T Combatting Human Trafficking Using Social Science

Release Date: January 30, 2019

Worldwide, an estimated 20.9 million people are victims of sex trafficking, forced labor, and domestic servitude, collectively known as human trafficking. It is estimated that human trafficking generates billions of dollars in illegal profits annually, making it second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable form of transnational crime. Human trafficking doesn’t only happen abroad; it occurs throughout the U.S., including in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Importantly, human trafficking victims can be any age, race, gender, or nationality, and they may come from any socioeconomic group. The crime of human trafficking is unique in that it is largely hidden; in fact, victims rarely come forward to seek help because of language barriers, fear of the traffickers, fear of law enforcement, and/or lack of awareness and acknowledgement of victim status.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) seeks to advance the mission and capabilities of the Department to protect basic human liberties: the right to freedom and the right to be free from exploitation and enslavement. S&T is incorporating social science research into the Department’s counter-human trafficking approach through two foundational projects: (1) the Counter-human Trafficking and Modern Slavery Foundational Effort and (2) the Human Trafficking System Analysis and Technology Roadmap. The data collected and the needs identified through these two projects will be used to develop a strategy that will directly enable, inform, and assist operational partners, decision makers, and policy makers to combat human trafficking.

“Applying social science-based research to the Department’s overall counter-human trafficking strategy will at once ensure our efforts are effective, both immediately and in the long-term, and also are collaborative and efficient. As we identify and understand current and future efforts within the Department and outside it, we can work in unison to maximize the utility of the resources we have at hand, avoiding the duplication of efforts and leveraging current capabilities to make greater headway in combatting human trafficking at home and abroad,” said S&T Program Manager Jennifer Foley.

Counter-human Trafficking and Modern Slavery Foundational Effort

The Counter-human Trafficking and Modern Slavery Foundational Effort serves as the starting point for the development of a social science-based counter-human trafficking and modern slavery program at S&T. The program pursues evidence-based research to combat human trafficking with the goal of enabling decision makers, policy makers, and others on the front lines to take operationally-sound actions. Foley plans to develop a framework that:

  • Identifies the governmental, non-governmental, academic, and private organizations involved in combatting human trafficking;
  • Maps the relationships between the identified counter-human trafficking organizations;
  • Delineates the taxonomy used to classify these organizations and their respective programs; and
  • Classifies the different types of human trafficking, as well as their respective warning signs, indicators, and signatures.

“Because of the transnational nature of human trafficking, attempts to understand and combat it must necessarily consider the interpretation, content, and application of time, place, and culture. To this end, outcomes of the Counter-human Trafficking and Modern Slavery Foundational Effort are meant to be holistic, encompassing both domestic and international perspectives, problems, and policies,” Foley explained.

Human Trafficking System Analysis and Technology Roadmap

In October 2018, together with the aforementioned effort, S&T began conducting an analysis of the human trafficking domain by engaging interagency partners, state and local governments, academia, the private sector, non‑governmental organizations, and community groups. This analysis and stakeholder engagement will inform a technology roadmap to combat human trafficking. The technology roadmap will include both recommendations for short‑term small‑scale technology for quick implementation, as well as long-term large-scale nationally disruptive technology. Potential areas where technology could prove useful in combatting human trafficking are:

  • Software and hardware;
  • Law enforcement and legal; and
  • Information sensing and collaboration. 

“Needs change; technologies change faster. Investigating what methods and technologies are currently being used to combat human trafficking, their efficacy, and then marrying these into a set of ‘best practices’ will show us where we must invest our resources, what we are doing well, and how we could be doing better,” said Foley.

Looking forward, Foley and her team at S&T hope the lessons learned from both projects will lay a strong foundation for a social science‑based program at S&T to combat human trafficking.

By developing an informed research strategy, S&T will contribute to the Department’s efforts to:

  • Prioritize the fight against human trafficking;
  • Enhance the coordination of resources across the Department;
  • Raise public awareness of human trafficking;
  • Protect victims; and
  • Bring perpetrators to justice.

Learn more about S&T’s counter-human trafficking work. Email first.responder@hq.dhs.gov.

Last Updated: 06/03/2021
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