To provide context for our vision we must first share a brief history of the anti-trafficking movement.

The anti-trafficking movement is now a little more than two decades old. It was founded to end sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. Programs designed to address labor trafficking, forced labor, and labor exploitation have been added over the years and have grown into solid segments of the industry. Over the last two decades progress has been made: some forms of trafficking and exploitation have been reduced, and many survivors have been rescued and reunited with their families.

At the same time many things remain unchanged. The industry is still primarily focused on the rescue, restoration, and reintegration of survivors of sex trafficking and the capture and prosecution of traffickers. Unfortunately, while many survivors have been rescued and participated in rehabilitation programs, many survivors have also reentered exploitation because the conditions in their families and communities that led to them being trafficked have remained unchanged.

The Current Reality

There is a commonly-quoted parable about rescuing people who are drowning in a dangerous river. At first, there are one or two people who need rescue, and people on the bank of the river work quickly to save them from drowning. However, soon it is a never-ending flow of people who need rescuing from the river. This never-ending flow is the current state of human trafficking. There is a constant flow of people into exploitation, trafficking, and slavery.

In most versions of the parable, the rescuers soon decide to walk up the river and see why people are falling in. The reality is that the anti-trafficking movement has been up the river many times. We know where people are entering the river, and we have posted numerous signs on the shore telling people the river is dangerous and that they should not enter the river.

Unfortunately, we seem to believe that people are accidentally falling into the river and that a warning about the danger will suffice. The reality is that the conditions upriver are much different than those of us who merely walk up the river perceive. Poverty, lack of human rights, lack of education, discrimination, and economic exclusion are just a few of the complex, interconnected issues that push people toward the river. The river is often the only avenue of escape and the only possibility of economic survival. Everyone understands that entering the river is dangerous. No one wants to make the leap, but circumstances force people to choose to enter the river to survive.

A few find fair, safe employment and a better life. Most find exploitation, suffering, slavery, and forced labor. A few are rescued by the anti-trafficking industry. Those who are rescued are “rehabilitated” and returned to the bank of the river. Some manage to survive back at home, but many must try their luck in the river again and again.

The constant struggle for survival faced by people who are vulnerable illustrates the crossroads that the anti-trafficking industry is currently facing. Do we keep repainting the signs at the edge of the river and only pull out the people we can reach, or do we commit to helping communities address the societal issues that drive people into the river to survive?

Our Vision for the Future

We believe that the anti-trafficking industry must commit to addressing the societal conditions that drive exploitation, human trafficking, and modern slavery. A commitment to address these root causes is not without its challenges. The primary challenges that arise in addressing root cause issues are complexity and skill. Complexity refers to the interconnected nature of the root cause issues. Many people in vulnerable situations are struggling with multiple layers of marginalization, exclusion, and injustice. Separating the layers and understanding what help is needed requires skill, cultural awareness and humility, deep respect for the agency and capacity of each person, and infinite amounts of patience.

To understand the role of skill, we need to briefly go back to our river parable. There is a measure of skill that is required to remove people from the river of exploitation or slavery, and there is a measure of skill needed to paint the signs on the river bank to warn people of the danger. However, in comparison, it requires a considerably greater amount of skill to help survivors heal and prepare for their journey home. Likewise addressing community issues that lead to exploitation and re-exploitation requires a skilled, culturally-aware workforce that currently does not adequately exist in the anti-trafficking sector.

If we are trying to prevent people from entering the water — whether it is the first time or the fifth time — it is infinitely more complex than simply pulling them from the water when they come into view downriver.

To adequately prevent people from entering the river requires skilled professionals trained to understand the complexity of the situations they encounter and to determine how to provide the minimum support necessary to ensure the safety of people who are vulnerable while respecting their agency and ability to help themselves if presented with the opportunity to do so. Skilled professionals are needed to remove the barriers that prevent people in vulnerable situations from succeeding. 

We created the Institute for Anti-Trafficking Innovation to catalyze a shift in the anti-trafficking industry. We want to see the focus shift from volunteers pulling victims out of the water to skilled professionals who are members of local communities working with their communities to ensure that no one needs to enter the river to survive.

We believe that every person at risk and every survivor of exploitation deserves the absolute best effort the industry can provide to prevent their exploitation or help them recover and find the opportunities they need to avoid reentering exploitation.

This means that we must constantly be looking for opportunities to learn and apply what we know to help the industry self-evaluate and improve. We want to facilitate a movement towards professionalism within the sector by developing an evidence-based approach, professional training programs, certifications, and evaluation standards for individuals and organizations.

We hope you will join us in this journey of learning, thinking, applying, and sharing. Together we can increase the industry’s ability to prevent exploitation, human trafficking, and modern slavery,

Christa Foster Crawford


Bryon Lippincott