Human Trafficking During Disasters: Addressing Vulnerabilities & Building Resilience

Updated: Feb 13

Traffickers are likely to continue recruiting and exploiting vulnerable populations during times of disaster—including hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and fires in multiple dwellings—in order to profit from victims’ displacement and lack of resources. According to Polaris, a nonprofit that tracks and combats human trafficking, traffickers often target and recruit victims at shelters and aid centers intended for disaster relief. Polaris notes that homelessness, poverty, unemployment, delayed income, and lack of resources make disaster survivors vulnerable to trafficking recruitment.


Online Craigslist advertisements following Hurricane Harvey (Source: Public Radio International)
  • According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the largest labor trafficking case in US history occurred following Hurricane Katrina. A marine services company hired nearly 500 Indian men to rebuild damaged oil rigs on the Gulf Coast, charging them $10,000 to $20,000 in recruitment fees, while promising permanent US residency in exchange. In reality, the workers never received green cards and the company charged them more than $1,000 per month to live in guarded labor camps.

  • According to Children at Risk (C@R), a Texas research and advocacy nonprofit, online sex ads doubled from an average 150 ads per day to 350 per day following Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas and Louisiana in 2017. Many ads were featured on the classified advertisement site Backpage.com and implied sex in exchange for shelter. According to C@R’s Staff Attorney, the nonprofit posted its own ads on Backpage.com to increase awareness and deter potential buyers on the website.

  • Following Hurricane Harvey, the City of Houston Mayor’s Office launched an anti-human trafficking effort to raise public awareness about the nexus between disasters and the increase in sex and labor trafficking. The initiative provided residents information on recruitment tactics at shelters and via social media, warning citizens about false promises of jobs and money.

To build personal and community resilience, the NTIC encourages the public to engage in emergency planning and preparedness and to increase their awareness about human trafficking indicators and red flags. The chart below contains factors that contribute to increased vulnerability to trafficking in a post-disaster situation. The list of preparedness tips below are designed to help community members combat human trafficking and increase personal resilience.

For additional resources, visit FEMA – Preparing for Disaster, DHS – Prepare My Family for a Disaster, Red Cross – How to Prepare for Emergencies, and UNICEF USA.


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