How Churches Can Spot and Stop Human Trafficking After Hurricane Michael

This article was originally published in Christianity Today.

Photo via Pixabay

Photo via Pixabay


Now that Hurricane Michael has struck, a mass influx of people will start pouring into Florida to step into the vacuum of needs created by the storm. But the dark reality is that not all are there to help. Some will likely be human traffickers ready to swoop in and exploit the vulnerable.

The significant damage, mass displacement of survivors, and influx of outsiders following disasters often fuels the demand for sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Traffickers often hide under the cover of rescue work and even law enforcement, obscuring their true intentions until it’s too late for victims to protect themselves.

Despite the countless challenges to anti-trafficking efforts, Christians are uniquely poised to help in the wake of disaster because our churches’ community ties and relationships with the vulnerable.

Further, as Christians, we are called (Ps. 41:1) to help those in need, and where there is a major disaster—the threat of trafficking looms—clearly the need is great. Here’s how to spot vulnerable survivors more at risk for trafficking and steps to take to help stop it from occurring.

Spotting survivors at risk for trafficking

If you want to help prevent traffickers from exploiting the vulnerable and help people who are already trapped in this web, start by learning how to spot the signs of trafficking. People displaced by the event often lack depth of community and roots in their new location, which makes them more vulnerable to trafficking.

When people are struggling to meet basic needs, like food, water, and housing, they can be more easily coerced or deceived by people offering to help meet those needs. Traffickers often try and lure displaced survivors with job offers or free housing and food.

Major risk factors to look for include: separation from loved ones (especially children from their parents), lost source of income, working for basic necessities rather than money, identification documents held by an employer, inability to freely choose where to live, and unexplainable injuries.

Also, be on the lookout for offers to help that sound too good to be true from unknown sources that seem to be targeting women, children, or marginalized groups. Consider the following examples to help you better understand what trafficking looks like following a disaster.

After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last September, a Texas nonprofit called Children At Risk warned against the potential increase in sex trafficking as they observed adult ads on online sites double after the storm.

Many of these ads explicitly mentioned Harvey: “Pretty girls wanting to make some quick money and recover losses from Harvey” read one. Online sex ads on more than doubled from the 150 average to 350 on the highest post-Harvey day.

The Houston mayor’s office issued a press release outlining the city’s short-term prevention and response efforts, which included various ways to educate shelter residents about the risks and signs of human traffickers. Though ads of this nature aren’t hard evidence of trafficking, they without a doubt reflect a common strategy many traffickers use to recruit victims.

Human trafficking is not just sex trafficking—it also includes labor trafficking, which often targets male workers recruited to help rebuild and speed-up recovery. Large-scale damage creates a high and sudden demand for low-cost labor at a time when law enforcement is already worn thin and employment restrictions are often lifted to help accelerate recovery.

For example, after Hurricane Katrina, at least 9 large cases of this kind of labor trafficking—involving over 3,750 victims—were documented. In these cases, traffickers kept workers in labor camps or dilapidated buildings monitored by armed guards.

Most victims were trafficked in from developing nations and charged by the traffickers for their visas, flights, housing, and even steep “recruiter fees” for the opportunities themselves. Traffickers then leverage this debt against the workers in order to exploit them as they must continue to work to pay off impossibly high sums of money.

How to help stop trafficking

As people of faith, we are called to pray for others, especially for the underserved. We shouldn’t think that “sending our prayers” is a meaningless gesture.

Prayer is a God-ordained means of calling out for divine help. In times of disaster, we shouldn’t see our prayers for people at risk of being trafficked as an afterthought, but rather as one of the most powerful things we can do to help. Similarly, we should pray because it helps guide our path for taking action.

Prepare yourself to help. Familiarize yourself with some of the helpful free resources available from Christian ministries like Let My People GoA21, and International Justice Mission that can be used to prepare to take action in the movement to abolish human trafficking.

Likewise, take time to reflect on why you want to help. You are more likely to run into or cause trouble if you get involved in combatting trafficking for the wrong reasons. Make sure you are helping for the right reasons–like wanting to help others for the sake of helping others.

Another important way to help prevent traffickers from taking hold in a community is to ensure the immediate needs of vulnerable communities are met. When people don’t have to worry about where their family will sleep at night or where the next meal will come from, they are less likely to turn to a trafficker promising these things.

Providing shelter, food, and medical care, and helping ensure these needs will be met in both the short-term and long-term are significant ways to cut into the root drivers of disaster-related human trafficking. Reuniting separated children with parents, family, or caregivers is another way to help minimize vulnerability.

Volunteering or donating to established organizations like the ones noted above can help those already caught in the web of human trafficking. Partnering with an established anti-trafficking organization in your community after a disaster hits improves the odds that you will do more to help than accidentally cause harm.

This kind of work is highly sensitive and requires expertise that should not be attempted by people without proper knowledge, training, and experience in this area. Don’t intervene in an explicit or obvious way, as this is more likely to cause harm than to help.

Let me be clear about what I mean by this: say you suspect a local nail salon is being used as a hub for trafficking that caters to construction crews assisting with the disaster recovery process. To go into the salon on your own rescue mission is dangerous and careless, and people are likely to get hurt.

Instead, take a more implicit or less overt approach, like waiting until the person you think might be at risk is alone in a private setting (e.g. in the restroom) and report your suspicion to the local law enforcement.

Get others involved in anti-trafficking efforts through efforts to raise awareness. Trafficking amidst a disaster is too big of an issue for any one person to take on. Talk with your friends, loved ones, and leaders in your community to help them become more aware about the connection between disasters and trafficking.

Also consider sharing helpful resources developed by established organizations like the ones mentioned above. The Department of Homeland Security launched the Blue Campaign, which has a wide range of free awareness-raising resources from tip sheets to videos for distribution.

Lastly, you can raise awareness by advocating for policies that address the root causes of the trafficking cycle, such as extreme poverty and other system inequalities. More long-term advocacy efforts are needed to address systemic injustices that cause vulnerability and make some people more at risk in the first place.

Dr. Jamie Aten is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook (InterVarsity Press) and A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience(Templeton Press, forthcoming January 2019).In 2016 he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website

Laura Leonard is communications specialist at Humanitarian Disaster Institute.

How to Help Your Church Avoid Getting Scammed after Hurricane Florence

This article was originally published on Church Law & Tax.

Photo by  Daniel Tseng  on  Unsplash

You may have seen the warnings after last year’s slate of hurricanes: disaster fraud made headlines as vendors, volunteers, and scammers tried to take advantage of vulnerable people in response and recovery efforts. If your church has been hit by Hurricane Florence or another major disaster, you don’t need to be scared; you just need to be prepared. Having worked with churches around the globe, I’ve seen firsthand how disasters can bring out the good in people—but also the worst.

After Hurricane Katrina, I learned of a small rural church in South Mississippi that hired a construction company from out of state that promised to help them. But there was a catch: they wanted payment up front to buy supplies. You probably know how this ends: the contractor took the money and was never seen again.

No one wants to imagine something like this could happen to them, or that they could make this kind of mistake, but it’s often difficult to think clearly in the midst of a disaster. Imagine a storm has destroyed your church or your community: your stress is high, it feels like everyone is counting on you, resources are strapped, you aren’t sure where to turn for help—every decision can feel overwhelming. Though most people responding to a disaster are doing so to help, it’s important to put safeguards into place to keep what happened to this church from happening to yours.

Vet Vendors

Most people would hear the warning bells if a vendor wanted payment up front for something as large as a major construction job. But sadly, there are lots of other ways churches can get taken advantage of by vendors post-disaster that might be less obvious at first. For example, I worked with a church in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that knew better than to pay for everything up front, but got taken advantage of when the builders actually turned out to be looters. In another situation, a vendor working on the computer system got a hold of key financial information and slowly started milking the church’s finances a little at a time so as not to set off alarms.

When possible, try to use local companies with whom you already have a relationship. You already know you can trust them, and it’s good to support local businesses that have also likely been impacted by the event. But it’s still important to have a clear contract and to protect your own interests. Just because you’ve had a prior good experience with a local vendor, you could find out that this time the temptation to make a quick buck is too tempting for them.

Price gouging— selling or renting goods or lodging “at an unconscionable price”—is a common problem after a disaster. It’s currently illegal in 35 states, but it’s still good to get quotes from multiple vendors to ensure you’re getting a fair price.

This doesn’t mean outside companies are bad—there are lots of great people and organizations that arrive from out of town because they truly want to help. And it’s highly likely that needs in your community will outweigh local resources so you’ll need to work with some outside vendors. But be mindful of red flags, like an unfamiliar company that doesn’t seem to have any public information available. I’m not just talking about searching for a website; anyone can throw up a website on the internet. Keep digging. Look for online reviews and ratings, a social media presence, call the better business bureau, check references, interview the vendors, ask around to others in your community for references.

Supervise Volunteers

Not all people who are out to take advantage of others are out for financial gain. It breaks my heart how many times I’ve heard of churches welcoming in volunteers—including their own congregation members—who ended up being wolves in sheep’s clothing.

If you have volunteers working with your church after the disaster, take proper precautions to do what you can, even amidst the chaos, to prevent survivors from possibly being taken advantaged of or hurt. Vulnerability to sexual and domestic violence increases during a disaster, particularly at evacuation sites and shelters. You can find a list of precautions your church can take to help prevent this here.

Ideally you will have trained and vetted staff or volunteers in place to supervise the likely influx of volunteers, some of whom you’ll know and some of whom you won’t. But the reality of a disaster is that your staff and volunteers who have had background checks and gone through your usual system may not be available to help because they evacuated, can’t get to the church because of debris, or are now the ones that need help.

This doesn’t mean you can’t accept outside help, but be sure to have trusted leaders supervising and on site at all times to keep an eye on things. Make sure they know what warning signs to look for and what to do if they see something suspect. If people are on your church property, it’s your responsibility to do what you can to protect them. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable after a disaster, so be extra careful to monitor their safety.

Track Donations

If your church or community finds itself in the middle of a disaster zone, it’s likely you will not just be managing vendors and volunteers, but also donations. Your church probably already has a system of some sort in place to manage financial donations, but be aware that disaster donations can be more difficult to manage. Make sure you don’t just track dollars coming in to the church; keep tally of goods and services that are given, too. Don’t fool yourself by thinking you’ll remember and will go back to document later. Even if your computer systems are down, start jotting down gifts as they come in and saving receipts in a folder.

There are several reasons you need to be dutiful in this process. One is that you will need to report the donations you received in disaster aid for tax purposes. These records will help improve transparency of how your church is handling its finances. This will also help prevent possible future accusations that funds or donations were mishandled down the road as the dust starts to settle. In 2013, a New Orleans church had to pay back $200,000 in federal disaster funds after it was found that the building repairs meant to be done with the money were incomplete and they were unable to provide documentation for how they had used the funds on the work they had done.

Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

When disaster strikes, be careful not to let go out the door all the precautions and safety checks your church has in place to keep your congregation members safe go out the door, especially when you are caring for children and other vulnerable survivors. Do your homework about any vendors you contract or allow access to your space or information. Keep an eye on donations being made throughout the entire disaster recovery process. Ask yourself if your current approach to tracking finances and donations will be able to adapt to a possible influx, especially of goods and services your church hasn’t had to track before. The solution doesn’t have to be high tech, just be intentional about documenting donations as they arrive.

By no means is this an exhaustive list of how to avoid being scammed after a disaster, but it should provide some principles to help you identify if something is off, and avoid potential problems down the road. Remember: If something looks, sounds, or feels suspicious, there’s a good chance it is.

Dr. Jamie Aten is an award-winning disaster psychologist and disaster ministry expert. He is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and the Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (January 2019).