By Lee Mannion
LONDON, Nov 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With proper training, hospital staff in the United States could play a significant role in identifying and helping victims of human trafficking, legal experts and activists said on Tuesday.
Victims often visit hospitals with unusual or unexplained injuries and illnesses - such as bruises, severe tooth decay and depression - which could be telltale signs that they have been trafficked, according to the Human Trafficking Legal Center.
Yet shame, trauma and the fear of deportation stops many victims speaking out and seeking help, campaigners said.
"Trafficking victims pass through our doors every day, undetected, because health professionals do not know how to identify them," Hanni Stoklosa, an emergency physician and executive director of HEAL Trafficking, said in a statement.
Research for the joint report was done in partnership with HEAL, a U.S. network offering support services to victims of modern slavery that sees trafficking as a public health issue.
Traffickers often stay with their victims while they are treated to see how they interact with staff, the report found.
Even victims who are examined alone are often reluctant to confide in doctors and nurses for fear of judgment, retaliation from their traffickers or being deported from the United States.
"These case studies point to significant red flags in medical settings," said Martina Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Legal Centre, which examined evidence from criminal and civil trafficking cases to produce the report.
"Whether they are held in forced labor or trafficked into the sex industry, trafficking victims need allies in the medical profession who can recognize these warning signs," she added.
Medical staff can not only identify and care for victims, but also document injuries, testify as expert witnesses, and provide affidavits for legal cases, according to the report.
While there are no official law enforcement statistics, about 36,000 cases of human trafficking have been reported to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline in the last decade.
The 2016 Global Slavery Index, which assesses incidents of human trafficking or slavery, estimates there are more than 57,000 victims of modern slavery living in the United States.
Many are forced into labour, trapped working in factories, farms and fishing boats, sold for sex or held for domestic work.
(Reporting by Lee Mannion @leemannion, Editing by Ros Russell and Kieran Guilbert; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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