Breaking the Cycle of Human Trafficking

Adrienne Livingston is on the front line of the battle against a growing industry that is quietly exploiting an estimated 1.8 million children globally each year. As the director of Anti-Sex Trafficking Initiatives at WorldVenture, she travels the world teaching Christians how to combat sex trafficking and exploitation, and hosts the Justice Hope Freedom podcast.

Her church, Village Church in Beaverton, Oregon, is located 20 minutes from Portland, which is a hotbed for strip clubs and underground exploitation of minors, and a hub on the I-5 corridor that runs from Canada all the way to Mexico, a thoroughfare notorious for West Coast sex trafficking.

Livingston has seen what human trafficking—the illegal transporting of people from one country or area to another, typically for forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation—does to people on a global scale and at the street level. She’s reminded of John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

“When you look at this issue, that’s exactly what it’s doing—it’s killing people. It’s robbing people of their lives and exploiting them. It’s manipulating them. It’s deceiving them,” Livingston says.

A Global Problem With a Local Face

Though solid numbers are hard to come by, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates the number of people trafficked globally is over 40 million.

According to a 2014 ILO report, traffickers pocket roughly $150 billion in profits a year. Sex trafficking is the most profitable. While only 19 percent of victims are trafficked for sex, it accounts for 66 percent of the global profits of human trafficking ($99 billion). Traffickers seek to exploit vulnerable people in vulnerable situations.

Jennifer Roemhildt Tunehag is an independent missions consultant who serves on the core team of the European Freedom Network—a group aimed at helping the body of Christ in Europe work together effectively to prevent and combat human trafficking and commercial exploitation of women, men and children. She says one of the biggest challenges in addressing trafficking is the vast flow of immigrants, refugees and displaced people around the world.

“Traffickers fish in streams of migration,” says Radhika Coomaraswamy, a human rights lawyer and former U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women. For example, “places in Europe that historically have other streams of women brought in are now seeing primarily refugee and migrant women.”

Though trafficking is a global problem, it ultimately boils down to brokenness in local communities. According to experts, nine times out of 10 there is some form of trafficking going on in any given community.

“People feel like it’s something that happens in another country,” says Kristen Morse, global reach director for A21, an international organization fighting slavery of any kind. “It is an issue that impacts everyone, every country, every economic structure.”

Because trafficking is a symptom of broken communities, it’s most effectively addressed at the community level through education, enforcement and breaking the cycle of exploitation.

“The more we learn from the journeys that people have been through trafficking and allow them to speak into it and also lead in that space, the more we’ll have an understanding of what works and what will actually help to prevent it before it starts,” Morse says.

Raising Awareness

To illustrate why sex trafficking is ultimately a local problem, we need look no farther than the link between pornography and the trafficking of minors. The internet has opened a gateway for online sexual exploitation of children. According to A21, the average age of missing children who are exploited through sex trafficking is 15. Not only are traffickers grooming their clientele to desire younger and younger victims, but the universal availability of webcams and smartphones—along with the dangerous myth that as long as someone isn’t touched, it’s not hurting anyone—is also creating a ready environment for exploitation.

Realities like these led Livingston to co-develop a sex trafficking prevention curriculum for middle school and high school girls at Village Church to help them identify and avoid situations where they could be taken advantage of.

She says the church needs to start addressing child exploitation by “helping [pornography users] understand how this is a driver of the demand of sex trafficking,” Livingston says. “Not every man who has viewed pornography has purchased sex, but we have found that men who have purchased sex have started with pornography.”

The fact that two-thirds of men who have purchased sex are married and two-thirds have kids underscores the disconnect in the minds of porn viewers between their use and the human exploitation element of the problem.

That’s why stories are key to the fight against trafficking: Without awareness of the human side of trafficking, motivation to combat it will remain low. Churches need to help people understand that pornography is not a victimless crime, raising awareness of the issue by telling the stories of people who have been involved in combatting trafficking and people who have been trafficked themselves.

Christine MacMillan, chair of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Global Human Trafficking Task Force, says, “I like to turn the question of human trafficking around and ask, What’s human about trafficking? You look at humans and their stories.”

Going hand-in-hand with the necessity to humanize the issue of trafficking is a need to educate people on how to identify those in vulnerable situations and how to help those who have been trafficked.

Livingston holds mentor support collaborative meetings at her church where members from 60 Portland area churches go through monthly training on a biblical response to the realities of sex trafficking, and learn how to be mentors to people who have experienced abuse and complex trauma. She brings in licensed counselors, survivors and law enforcement officers to share stories and educate.

“The church needs to be a hospital,” Livingston says. “We need to diagnose and have resources, or point to resources, to solve or help remedy [the problem].”

Making Traffickers Pay

For Richard Lee, church mobilization director at International Justice Mission (IJM), law enforcement is the most important ingredient in stopping human trafficking. For over 20 years IJM has partnered with governments to help them more effectively enforce their own laws.

There’s a common misconception that government corruption runs rampant in countries where trafficking occurs. But more often the case is that those governments lack resources and training.

“Where laws are not enforced, it creates environment where trafficking can happen with impunity,” Lee says. “It is the call to the church to raise their voices and to use their resources to compel the governments to do the work of justice not just in this country but all around the world.”

IJM has seen some promising signs in Cambodia. In 2003, when IJM started a law enforcement partnership with the country’s government, the percentage of minors being trafficked was between 15 and 30 percent. In the 15 years that have followed, that percentage has fallen to one-tenth of a percent.

In response, IJM has transitioned their casework from fighting sex trafficking to fighting slave or labor trafficking, because the Cambodian government has been so effective in addressing the problem of sex trafficking in their country. IJM has seen similar results in the Philippines, India, Uganda and Ghana.

Trafficking is a lucrative business. It continues because there continues to be demand for it. So another component of enforcement is reducing the demand for trafficked individuals and disrupting the flow of money. This hits traffickers where it hurts: in the wallet.

Roemhildt Tunehag says one way the cash flow of trafficking is being addressed is through organizations such as Liberty Asia. In many countries, financial institutions can be held liable for money linked to human trafficking, so Liberty Asia connects financial institutions with churches, ministries and agencies to identify and intercept money that comes from trafficking. Roemhildt Tunehag also works with Freedom Business Alliance, which helps businesses create jobs for vulnerable people and victims of trafficking to help them avoid being retrafficked.

Livingston says law enforcement in the city of Portland has seen success addressing the demand component by creating a sex buyers diversion program informally known as “john school.” When someone is picked up by the police for buying sex, they are given a choice: jail time, or the option of paying a $1,000 fine and going to an eight-hour class educating them on the evils to which they are contributing. The same is true for a second offense. If there is a third time, they go to prison.

Breaking the Cycle of Exploitation

Ultimately, efforts at addressing trafficking from an enforcement standpoint will fail if we don’t address the factors that lead to a person being trafficked in the first place. According to Roemhildt Tunehag, a reinforcing cycle of social breakdown makes certain individuals vulnerable to being exploited and more susceptible to being retrafficked if they get out of a trafficking situation.

“Poverty creates a huge vulnerability for exploitation,” Roemhildt Tunehag says. “And the experience of exploitation leads to more brokenness; unless something happens to break the cycle, it just keeps going.”

But the encouraging truth is that if the cycle is broken at any point on the chain, the whole cycle of exploitation is disrupted:

Courtesy of Jennifer Roemhildt Tunehag

To effectively combat human trafficking, the church and other concerned parties need to raise awareness about the factors that create the cycle of exploitation. The key is not only to get someone out of a situation where they’re being trafficked, because often that person will just be retrafficked. The focus must be on rehabilitating victims and preventing others from being trafficked in the first place.

“Human trafficking is not ended because you rescue someone; the situation and trauma sticks with them throughout life,” MacMillan says. “Survivors are empowered by sharing their stories.”

According to Livingston, an important step in helping victims of exploitation is reframing the conversation. Instead of shaming or ostracizing people who have been affected by the trauma of abuse and exploitation, churches need to become safe places to discuss and deal with past trauma.

In rehabilitation of victims, the aim should be to focus on the whole human being. Someone who has been trafficked has lost their sense of self, experts say. Their body has been seen as a commodity. So any effort to heal a victim of trafficking must address all aspects of the person’s humanity.

“If we’re going to open up a big wound, you need to also have a safety net,” Livingston says. “It’s about creating safety in church; leadership must create a safe space to address these issues without judgment.”

This is why activists say it’s key for local churches to get involved in addressing a myriad of social problems that could lead to exploitation. If churches can get involved in helping families thrive, educating and mentoring children, and providing job training for people in vulnerable situations, it can have a huge impact in combatting and preventing trafficking.

Turning the Tide

Ten years ago, when Kristen Morse of A21 started in the field of human trafficking awareness, she attended conferences and events to talk to people about the subject and remembers “completely ruining their day” because they were so shocked that it even existed.

Since then, she has seen a huge shift in awareness: “Instead of asking what it is, people are asking what they can do.” A21’s Walk for Freedom last October generated 450-plus walks to raise awareness in 50 countries. The organization also has seen increased collaboration and partnership from Polaris (a charity that among other things runs the national human trafficking hotline), the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Justice on their “Can You See Me?” campaign, raising awareness in airports.

“There are so many churches all over that have done what they can,” Morse says. “It’s really cool to watch them use their resources and join the campaigns and really impact their city locally while being part of the bigger mission.”

Richard Lee of IJM says that when people hear a sermon or message on trafficking, it “raises the temperature of justice throughout the entire congregation.” A church in Indiana has raised over $2 million through an annual special offering to support IJM’s work in Africa. Another church, after hearing a sermon series on trafficking, raised funds to build a recovery house for those coming out of the sex trade in Bangladesh. A third church in Pennsylvania has so woven justice into its DNA, from kids ministry on up, that one young girl decided to sell lemonade at town fairs and has raised around $50,000 over the last five years to combat trafficking.

“These stories compel me,” says Lee, “because everything from the huge, bold initiatives to something small, steady and significant has borne fruit.”

Exposing the Darkness

Livingston sees a lot of hurting people, both women and men, in the course of her work. But she has also seen churches in Portland and around the world rally together to create a safe, nonjudgmental place for people to discuss and address the uncomfortable realities of human trafficking.

She’s encouraged by the fact that churches aren’t shying away from the issue, but instead are boldly taking steps to bring these issues out of the darkness where they thrive and into the light where change happens.

“God didn’t come for the healthy, but for the sick,” Livingston says. “We have to expose the darkness for the healing to occur.”

For more of our coverage on justice issues see the January/February 2019 issue of Outreach magazine or go to


• Polaris Human Trafficking Hotline:; (888) 373-7888 or text “Be Free” to (233733)
• National Center on Sexual Exploitation:
• International Justice Mission:
• The A21 Campaign:
• Justice Hope Freedom Podcast:
• European Freedom Network:
• Freedom Business Alliance:
• Mentor Support Collaborative:
Mending the Soul (Zondervan, 2008) by Steven R. Tracy
In Our Backyard (Baker, 2015) by Nita Belles
Just Courage (IVP, 2016) by Gary Haugen
Vulnerable (B&H, 2019) by Raleigh Sadler


1. Start a prayer group around the issue of human trafficking.
2. Raise awareness through a human trafficking focus event or sermon series.
3. Invite local churches to partner in a shared event with trafficking survivors, law enforcement and counselors as speakers.
4. Take advantage of training materials available to educate church members on how best help survivors of trafficking.
5. Participate in global events like Freedom Sunday, Walk for Freedom and others.
6. Raise money to address global human trafficking by partnering with a vetted organization on projects such as building recovery homes overseas or funding advocacy.
7. Partner with city government, law enforcement and community organizations that are already addressing the issue in your community.
8. Donate items such as clean cell phones, clothes and gift cards to shelters and recovery homes for victims of trafficking.
9. Provide chaplains and counselors for survivors picked up by local law enforcement.
10. Implement trafficking prevention curriculum in your middle school and youth ministries and local schools.


Human Trafficking Worldwide
40.3 million total modern slavery victims worldwide:
—24.9 million (61%) are in some form of forced labor (including 4.8 million of whom are sexually exploited)
—15.4 million (38%) are in forced marriages.
Source: International Labor Organization

Number of Forced Laborers by Region:
The Asia-Pacific: 15.4 million (62% of the global total).
Africa: 5.7 million (23%)
Europe and Central Asia: 2.2 million (9%)
The Americas: 1.2 million (5%)
Arab States: 0.4 million (1%)
Source: International Labor Organization

Globally, 1.8 million minors are exploited in the sex industry every year.
96.4% are female
2.8% are male
0.9% are transgender
Source: WorldVenture

1 in 5 pornographic images is of a child
Source: WorldVenture