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.

If You Really Want to Help after Hurricane Florence, Set Out to Be Humble—Not a Hero

This article was originally published in Christianity Today.

Photo via Creative Commons

Photo via Creative Commons


Hurricane Florence has begun pounding the East coast. If you’re wondering how you can help, the best place to start isn’t an immediate action, but an attitude of humility. 

Scripture is clear that humility is essential to service. Jesus instructs his disciples, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). He also preaches it publicly, saying, “The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt. 23:11-12).

Swooping in to volunteer for the wrong reasons—like wanting to be a hero—is more likely to cause harm than help. It’s humble hearts and hands that will save the day. Humility will help you be more other-oriented and more open to hearing what sort of help survivors actually need.

Below are five biblically and research-supported steps you can take to ensure you are helping with humility on the ground or from afar.

Know your motivation for wanting to help. 

Maybe your faith is compelling you to take action. Perhaps you feel moved by the devastating images filling your social media accounts. Compassion might be the driving force behind your altruism. These are all good reasons to help—and we hope you do.

But it’s possible to get involved with helping after a disaster for the wrong reasons. As disaster psychology researchers, we see this over and over again. Some people have what you might call a hero complex. They help not to meet the needs of others, but to meet their own needs.

They are often driven by external motivations, like getting “in on the action.” Other people want to be known as a do-gooder. Others might struggle with anxiety about what happened, and want to do something to alleviate their own negative feelings. If this describes you or someone you know, here’s what we’d advise: Leave the cape at home before leaping into action.

Understand your strengths and weaknesses.

A humble person is able to see and accept their strengths and weaknesses clearly. When your sense of self is not tied to external factors like affirmation or recognition, you can view criticism as an opportunity to grow rather than as a threat to your identity. You can comfortably defer and delegate to people who are better equipped for a task or decision.

Researchers have theorized that humility is an important prerequisite to grow and develop expertise—because it allows you to (a) seek out and incorporate feedback, and (b) engage in deliberate practice. Deliberate practice focuses not on what you already do well, but is designed to help you improve by focusing on skills that push the edges of your current abilities. 

Biblical humility recognizes that God is God and we are not—any good we can do is made possible only through him (Phil. 2:5-11). This truth allows us to see ourselves as we truly are without fear of admitting faults or weaknesses.

Don’t assume you know the best way to help.

Each of us is limited by our own experiences, so one of the most important and powerful ways we can practice humility is by listening.

The people affected by the disaster know their own needs better than you do, and if you don’t take them seriously, you won’t be able to offer help that truly addresses those needs. Truly listening to learn from those you are there to assist will keep you from coming across like a “bull in a china shop.”

In 2004, U.S. volunteer traveled to Sri Lanka to help in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Although well-intentioned, the helpers had different assumptions and priorities than the local people, which resulted in ineffective help and unintended harm.

This lack of humility and consideration of culture resulted in the national press labeling the foreign helpers as the “second tsunami.” Engaging with humility, on the other hand, recognizes and acknowledges our limitations and need for listening and learning.

The more superior you try to position yourself, the more likely people will shut down opportunities to help (James 1:19). Humbling asking how you can help makes it more likely that your efforts will meet actual needs. Doing so also makes it easier for survivors to accept you assistance.

Be a team player.

Pitch in where ever help is needed. Humility means recognizing that no job is beneath you. 1 Corinthians 12:20-25 reminds us that in Christ we are all parts of one body, and that “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

What may seem to you like the smallest of jobs might make the biggest difference, and certainly has importance and dignity.

Research on team-building has found that humble individuals are better able to integrate their skills and talents, and contribute to the team’s overall effort. A study on relational humilityfound that humble individuals are more likely to be viewed with higher group status and acceptance.

When you serve others in this way, you empower the people you are trying to help to not only recover and thrive but to join you in service.

Admit when you make mistakes.

If you help on the ground or from afar, you are going to mess up from time to time. Humility will help you own it when you do. It will also help you view mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.

Embracing grace when we err will also help you forgive others you may encounter when helping (Eph. 4:32). Indeed, research has found positive links between humility and forgiveness.

Practicing humility helps untangle your sense of self-worth from your deeds, making it easier to take responsibility for your actions.

Overall, humility will help you respond more effectively to needs left behind in the wake of Hurricane Florence by keeping your motivation in check—and your feet on the ground.

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

Dr. Joshua N. Hook is an Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of North Texas. He is the author of Cultural Humility: Engaging Diverse Identities in Therapy and blogs regularly at