Human Trafficking and Healthcare - The Real Pandemic

24 August 2023

Aaron Asay

Aaron Asay – Director of Anti-Human Trafficking for Aerial Recovery Group

Aaron has organised and led numerous rescue missions across the world, providing care to victims of humanitarian disasters and human trafficking globally.

“The term trafficking in persons can be misleading: it places emphasis on the transaction aspects of a crime that is more accurately described as enslavement. Exploitation of people, day after day. For years on end.

After much neglect and indifference, the world is waking up to the reality of a modern form of slavery.” – UN Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.

There is a disease in modern society that few want to talk about. The victims number in the millions and, as of today, nothing has worked to curb its growth. Everyone is at risk but those most affected often suffer from other vulnerabilities like poverty, homelessness, hunger, and mental health disorders. It affects women and men differently and is especially dangerous for children. The cure for this disease lies, not in medicine, but in human nature. 

The disease is slavery. 

And the cause is fellow human beings willing to exploit the vulnerable for their own gain and gratification. 

There was a time in history where it was acceptable that a conquering nation could enslave the population as a form of control and domination. Moral right or wrong was not even considered, and the use of might made everything justifiable to the powerful. Many only focus on the transatlantic slave trade between 1501 and 1867 when nearly 13 million people were enslaved from the African continent and brought to the Americas, especially to the Caribbean islands. 

Alongside these, voyagers also transported Europeans who were enslaved, traded in the Barbary pirate raids and sold into servitude in the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, the largest slave trade in the world was within the African continent itself.  

Slavery has existed on every landmass but Antarctica and amongst every people for millennia. By the 20th century however, slavery sanctioned by nation-states had largely disappeared and was outlawed by UN resolution. Sadly, it did not disappear, instead it became an underground and illegal industry that has festered and grown to become, currently, the second-largest criminal trade in the world, and the fastest growing. In comparison there are more slaves today than the total number of victims during the entire 400-year transatlantic trading period combined. 

Currently, there are over 50 million men, women and children being exploited by unscrupulous criminals willing to do harm to others, even children, for the enrichment of their status, bank accounts, and power. 

The negative health implications of human trafficking are staggering. Considering the wide range of possible disorders including both mental and physical trauma and disease, modern human trafficking should be considered the number one public health hazard we are facing today. 

Untreated STDs. Death from forcibly harvested organ trafficking. Genital mutilation. Buried alive in forced labour mines. Child soldiers forced to fight and die in wars they can’t comprehend. Indentured fishermen tossed to the waves and drowned after getting sick or injured. Child brides raped and impregnated just as they begin puberty. Refugees taken from camps and forced to provide sexual services in brothels and industrial camps to feed their children…This is only a small sample of the myriad ways humans harm other humans for money and power.

As much of the world focuses on popularity and social media influence, millions of people struggle to find food, shelter, security, and healthcare. Wars and disasters displace whole populations, and in the chaos, the predators seek their prey. The recent war in Ukraine serves as a brutal reminder that disruption of the public service systems results in many more victims, as we discovered in the early days of April 2022. 

While assisting the Ukrainian government to protect their large population of orphans from the battlefront, we found numerous situations where unscrupulous individuals and groups were competing to do the opposite. We realised we were in a race against time to rescue whole orphanages from being loaded onto buses and trucks and taken – to where was anyone’s guess. But most were never heard from again. 

In only a few months, over 10,000 orphans were unaccounted for, and that number only grew as the war dragged on. Current estimates show the number of missing children could be as high as 300,000. In an article for NBC News in July 2023 entitled “Where are Ukraine’s Missing Children?”, Yuliya Talmazan, Daryna Mayer and Bianca Britton discuss how Russia was accused of kidnapping many of these children. The Russian government did not deny this, rather they claimed it as “rescuing.” However, we witnessed first-hand on the front lines in Ukraine, children being taken not to Russia, but other borders, where trafficking in human beings is a well-documented activity.  

In addition, these transfers were done secretively and without any government sanction.  Our investigators discovered numerous scenarios involving criminal groups taking these children for exploitation. Soon, we will be publicly exposing one case involving the transnational movement of these children as far away as Mexico, specifically for sexual abuse.  

The situation in Ukraine is not an isolated one. This is the norm when chaos strikes a community today. We witness predators attempting to exploit the local communities in nearly every event to which we respond, all over the world. The buying and selling of human beings is a public health crisis that must be addressed. The criminal approach to solving this problem has not curbed its growth.

I believe instead that we must create solutions aimed at the public health vulnerabilities on our planet. We must address poverty, security, hunger, healthcare access and women’s rights. The criminal approach is failing because we don’t have a strong enough international law enforcement collaboration. Nations and organisations bicker over whose jurisdiction and whose money it is and who is getting the recognition for the rescues and arrests.

If we want to stop human trafficking from eventually swallowing up the whole worldwide population we must empower the individuals, the mothers, the fathers, the victims, local community members and families to fight for themselves. We need to give them the resources they need to care for their families, resources to feed their children, an effective way to defend themselves physically, and most of all strengthen women as a whole to be able to stand up publicly and demand their rights and respect without fear of repercussions.  

We must also address the demand for human beings, whether for sex, their labour, their organs or their trigger finger. We need to stop buying from businesses who obtain products through slave labour, whether it is lithium and cobalt for our electric cars or child-produced clothing and construction material. We must buy responsibly, and so we must get educated on who is doing business responsibly.  

But how do we curb the epidemic of purchased sexual gratification? We know this is a driver for sexual exploitation but what drives the need to purchase exploitative sex, whether from trafficked adults or from children in any form? Porn. We allowed pornography to become an insidious cancer in our worldwide society, now we need to cut it out. Current data points to pornography as a powerful driver for sex trafficking, especially of children. We must recognise the abusive nature surrounding the production of pornography, and create laws and regulations to curb this permanent, recorded violence against other human beings. More importantly, we need to hold the producers accountable for their abuses and strengthen laws for their punishment.  

This problem is much larger than many of us realise, as most of us have no point of reference to compare what it means to be a $150 billion a year empire. Think of the revenue generated by a transnational company like Apple and you get an idea of the profit enjoyed by these criminals. 

Because of the immensity of this industry, it will take collaboration across private and public organisations and individuals to fight it. Whether through banking, retail, hotels or food service, humans are exploited through, or around all of them.  

Human trafficking is no less present in the healthcare industry, and especially in frontline care. Emergency Rooms, Urgent Care clinics, Family Medicine offices and Paediatric Care centres are all places victims have been found. After all, the victims are people, and healthcare is something every human interacts with at some point in their lives. Our work in extreme environments, austere villages, refugee camps and disaster zones places many of us directly in front of both the victims and the criminals perpetuating these abuses. 

We have a unique opportunity to intercept victims when they are at their most vulnerable, enslaved AND sick or injured. We can find them when their traffickers are least aware, and our interventions can be most successful. We can be especially effective when we are educated on the signs, and trained in what to do when we recognise them. We can make a greater difference when we are looking for these victims and are ready to intercede when they appear. We can be a loud voice to educate our patients, their families and caregivers on risks, recognition, avoidance of predators and online safety. Most importantly, through becoming informed of the myriad ways these survivors suffer, we can be prepared to appropriately treat their physical injuries and emotional trauma and get them quickly onto the path of wellness and recovery.  

Treating human trafficking as the health crisis it is, and not just focusing on it solely as a crime, in my opinion, will do more to free these victims and provide for their healing than anything we have done previously.  

We have the access and ability to empower victims, survivors and those at risk to do what all the law enforcement agencies around the world have not – fight for their own freedom and win.


Aaron will be sharing his impactful experiences and expertise at the World Extreme Medicine Conference 2023. Join us to hear more from one of the most accomplished experts in disaster response and anti-human trafficking work.

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