Human Trafficking Risk and Vulnerability: What Marylanders Need to Know

By Jessica Emerson, director of the Human Trafficking Prevention Project (HTPP) at the University of Baltimore School of Law; and Laurie Culkin, project coordinator for the Human Trafficking Prevention Project at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS).

According to the International Labour Organization, more than 20 million people worldwide are victims of compelled labor, with nearly 5 million trafficked into the commercial sex industry.  Severe forms of trafficking in persons is defined by the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”) as the participation in a commercial sex act or some other form of labor induced through force, fraud, or coercion.  At its core, human trafficking is about abuse and cruelty toward human beings, and is a gross violation of human rights.

The Most Vulnerable Populations

While the characteristics of labor and sex trafficking victims can vary significantly, what unites them is a particular vulnerability that is exploited by a trafficker in order to gain control over them.

Who is most vulnerable?

  • Youth:  Minors are at higher risk for victimization simply because of their age.  With fewer life skills, poorer coping mechanisms, and less developed judgment, minors are more susceptible to the manipulation and coercion that is the primary means of recruitment by traffickers.  Although young people are indeed able to make thoughtful, reasoned decisions about their lives and their safety, this ability is intimately linked to the presence of a supportive, caring adult in the young person’s life.  Therefore, minors who are in foster care, have histories of abuse and neglect, or who have run away from their homes are especially vulnerable.  Because youth who identify as LGBTQ are disproportionately represented among populations of runaway and homeless youth due to higher incidences of fractured relationships with their families, they are at significantly heightened risk.
  • Women:  Traffickers often target women and girls in an effort to exploit the high levels of poverty, unequal access to education and employment, and gender-based violence/discrimination that disproportionately affect them.  It is common for male-identified traffickers to manipulate gender-based norms to gain control over their female-identified victims, and their relationship dynamics often mirror those of intimate partner violence.  As is the case with many other forms of gender-based violence, female victims can be hesitant to report their exploitation, especially if the perpetrator is a loved one or someone providing care and support to them or their families.  This often leads to misperceptions about whether the victim consented to this type of relationship, which can impact the victim’s ability to seek justice for what was done to her.
  • Those with Histories of Sexual of Physical Abuse or Neglect:  It is common for individuals with histories of abuse and neglect to experience low self-esteem, guilt and shame.  Traffickers routinely exploit these vulnerabilities by tailoring their recruitment strategies to meet their victims’ emotional and physical needs, oftentimes filling the role of protector or rescuer while simultaneously re-victimizing them.  Exploitation of this type typically results in trauma bonding, which is a strong survival instinct that is difficult to break.  Individuals with histories of sexual abuse, incest, and sexual assault may be at additional risk for sexual exploitation, as it is likely they are already desensitized or conditioned to sexual violence.
  • Immigrants:  Both documented and undocumented immigrants are at high risk for being trafficked.  Traffickers will typically exploit their victims’ immigration status by threatening to have them deported, or may confiscate or destroy their immigration or identification documents.  Exploitation of personal and familial debts is common as well, as is the manipulation of cultural norms in an effort to gain control over the victim.  Undocumented immigrants are especially vulnerable due to their limited employment options and the isolation that typically results from this, as well as the lack of legal protections available to them.  Immigrants are trafficked for forced labor far more frequently than domestic victims.

Debunking Common Myths about Human Trafficking

Although there is growing awareness about its prevalence and its impact on victims, human trafficking continues to take place in the shadows and remains shrouded in misperceptions.  Understanding the complex legal, social and policy issues surrounding the crime of human trafficking and learning more about whom it impacts can help lessen its continued proliferation and reduce the re-victimization of the individuals and families affected.  Media portrayals of human trafficking victims, for example, can significantly skew public awareness of human trafficking. Common misconceptions include:

Myth: Trafficking requires movement. 

Fact: Human trafficking is often confused with human smuggling, which requires the movement of a human being across international boundaries.  Though movement of victims is common in trafficking situations in an attempt to evade detection by law enforcement as well as the utility of controlling victims by trafficking them in unfamiliar areas, legally, movement is not required.  As a result, someone can be trafficked in their own state, city or home.

Myth: Victims see their traffickers as bad people. 

Fact: While this may be the case for some, many trafficking survivors have complex relationships with their traffickers that defy such distinct classifications. Some survivors may be married to or have children with their trafficker, or otherwise see the trafficker as a member of their family. They may also view their trafficker as a source of protection, or simply as someone who cares for them when few people in their life have shown such care or concern before.  Making assumptions about how a survivor feels toward their trafficker can impact a service provider’s ability to partner effectively with the survivor in their recovery.

Myth: “Real victims” come forward and report the crime that has been committed against them.

Fact: Similar to the assumptions made about survivors of domestic violence who do not wish to report the crimes that have been committed against them, this assumption is incorrect for a variety of complex reasons.  Many trafficking victims are themselves engaged in illegal activity at the command of their trafficker, and are scared that if they report their own victimization that they will be arrested or discriminated against by law enforcement. This is especially true for those engaged in the commercial sex trade, who are commonly arrested for prostitution.  Some victims may fear for their own safety or the safety of their loved ones, due to threats of harm made by their trafficker. Traffickers can also use threats of immigration sanctions and deportation to keep foreign national victims from reporting. Overall, the validity of the threat is immaterial, as coercion is subjective and unique to the individual being coerced.

Myth: Human trafficking must involve physical violence.

Fact: Though physical force is commonly used by traffickers to maintain control over their victims, fraud and coercion are often more effective methods of recruitment, as they target the unique vulnerabilities of the victim, such as the need for love, employment or general stability.

Myth: All prostitution is trafficking.

Fact: Prostitution refers to the exchange of sex or a sex act for money or something else of value.  Prostitution is elevated to the crime of human trafficking when the individual is induced to perform such an act through force, fraud or coercion.

Legislation Impacting Trafficking in Maryland

Human trafficking was first criminalized in Maryland in 2007.  By 2010, Maryland had amended its human trafficking statute to make the trafficking of an adult via force, fraud, or coercion a felony offense.  In 2011, Maryland followed New York as the second state in the nation to enact a “vacating convictions” law, allowing survivors of human trafficking to vacate prostitution convictions that resulted from their trafficking experience. Since then, more than 30 states have vacatur laws on the books to aid trafficking survivors who have been criminalized during the time they were being trafficked. Survivors who are criminalized in Maryland may also access legal relief in the form of expungement or shielding, and, most recently, through the Justice Reinvestment Act, which, as of October 1, added numerous convictions to the current expungement statute. Assisting survivors with cleaning up their criminal records is crucial in their recovery, ensuring that they are better able to obtain gainful employment, safe housing, and to heal from the trauma they experienced at the hands of their traffickers.

The Human Trafficking Prevention Project

The Human Trafficking Prevention Project (HTPP) was launched at the University of Baltimore School of Law in August 2015. Through the HTPP, student attorneys work to reduce the collateral consequences of criminal convictions for survivors of human trafficking and those populations made most vulnerable to exploitation. In April of 2017, the HTPP expanded to include a partnership with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS), Maryland’s largest provider of pro bono legal services. MVLS expanded the Project to include a pro bono arm to serve more clients through volunteer attorneys and to bring the work of the HTPP to survivors throughout the state. The two organizations collaborate to facilitate trainings and design resources for MVLS volunteer attorneys, develop relationships with community partners, and spread awareness about how legal resources can aid survivors of trafficking in Baltimore City and across the state of Maryland. In addition to direct service work, the HTPP works toward systemic change through legislative advocacy designed to improve outcomes for survivors of trafficking who have criminal records.  To date, the HTPP has served more than 80 individuals in Maryland who have been survivors of trafficking, or at high-risk for exploitation.

If you know a human trafficking survivor who needs legal assistance, please contact Jessica Emerson at 410-837-4566 or Laurie Culkin at 443-451-4075.


  1. International Labour Organization, ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour: Results and Methodology 13 (2012),—ed_norm/— declaration/documents/publication/wcms_182004.pdf.
  2. 22 U.S.C. § 7102(9) (2010) (The TVPA defines any minor engaging in a commercial sex act as being a victim of sex trafficking per se, regardless of whether a third party is exerting force, fraud, or coercion against them).

  3. MD Code Ann., Crim. Law § 11-301(c) (West 2010).

  4. MD Code Ann., Crim. Law § 11-303 (2007 & Supp. 2013) (effective October 1, 2007).

  5. Id. (2010 & Supp. 2013) (effective October 1, 2010).

  6. Survivor Reentry Project, A.B.A. Ctr. For Hum. Rts., cking/survivor-reentry-project.html (A comprehensive map, along with links to each state law, can be found on the homepage for the American Bar Association’s Survivor Reentry Project).

  7. MD Code Ann., Crim. Pro. § 10-105 (West 2017).

  8. MD Code Ann., Crim. Pro. § 10-303 (West 2015).

  9. MD Code Ann., Crim. Pro. § 10-110 (West 2017).