Human Trafficking: Closer to Home Than You Think

UNICEF office of global insight graphic

Guest Author: Alice Li from IMSA’s chapter of UNICEF

If we were on campus right now, around this time you would likely see a midday lemonade stand set up by UNICEF. You’d be greeted warmly by one of our board members and asked if you would like some sweet, refreshing lemonade (for free!). I mean, how foolish would it be to turn that down? Other people around you are drinking it, so you take a cup. 

You take a large sip and immediately gag. 

The supposed “lemonade” you just drank had no sugar and instead was a vile cup of sour lemon water. How could somebody as loving as a UNICEF board member lie to you? Why would they do that?


Luckily for you, your experience stopped with a cup of lemon water. For the 25 million people who are trapped in modern-day slavery each year, their story has a much bitter ending, and they had no choice whether to take that lemonade or not.


Cotton and textile industry forced laborer

Cotton and textile industry forced laborer (Flickr)

We’re all likely familiar with the images of beautiful, young Eastern European women who have shared their voices and messages through books and talks, but what about the eight-year-old Malian boy working without pay on a cacao farm in Cote d’Ivoire? What about the Bangladeshi construction worker in the UAE who works for less than minimum wage because his employer confiscated his passport, effectively holding him hostage? What about the children in the Philippines who are forced into prostitution by their own parents in hopes of getting out of poverty? Human trafficking is usually imagined solely as forced sexual intercourse, yet this is just the tip of the iceberg. Trafficking is frequently categorized as sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and organ trafficking, and while we may have images of hidden-alley assaults and deceptions on the dark web stuck in our heads, human trafficking truly is all around us. 

Wearing anything cotton? As of 2020, roughly 1 in 5 cotton garments sold globally contain cotton and/or yarn from the Uyghur Region. Thank the cultural genocide of the Uyghur people who were able to get you that shirt for such a low price.

Have an iPhone? Thank the Congolese child who likely mined (and may have died mining) the cobalt to power your iPhone’s lithium battery.

So what’s the point? I’m guilty of all these things. There are several quizzes online that take into account your belongings, your shopping tendencies, your groceries, and your hobbies in order to estimate the number of slaves that may be working for you. Yet there is no point in comparison because each of our numbers should be 0.

Western media has brought vital attention towards sex trafficking, but in doing so it has not only perpetuated a sensationalized depiction of victims by focusing on sexual exploitation, it has also hidden the true magnitude of how close human trafficking is to each of our daily lives. This isn’t an “over there” problem. This is an everywhere problem, and it’s something that we can barely escape.

So how do we get started? Do we boycott our daily lives and start over? Do we donate every cent we have towards organizations like UNICEF? What do we start with?

Start with education. Acknowledge the underlying socioeconomic factors that bring people into the industry in the first place. Question the distinction between sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Learn about the policies being put into place that prioritize the protection of human rights instead of trying to further hide the situation. If you are willing to, do research and support ethical, exploitation-free businesses that take pride in their mission. 

Organizations like UNICEF are fighting to respect and protect the rights and dignity of all victims while working toward its eradication. Taking time out of your day to educate, share, and donate truly makes a bigger difference than you think.


Representation of the extent of violent displacement of children (UNICEF USA)


From 3/8 – 3/12, UNICEF at IMSA will be dedicating the week to spreading awareness on human trafficking. Thank you to The Acronym for providing a platform for education and awareness, and we hope that this week will be informative for you all.

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