Rumi Kato Price, PhD, MPE

The Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration caught up with Dr. Price to ask about her work and trajectory.

Dr. Rumi Kato Price is a professor of psychiatry and a psychiatric epidemiologist who brings her expertise to bear on a range of research topics in the areas of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and other behavioral sequela of traumatic experiences in vulnerable populations. Most recently, she began methodologic and epidemiologic analyses of trafficking in persons. She focuses on global and domestic strategies for the tracking and identification of victims and survivors of human trafficking, as well as behavioral prevention and intervention strategies including mental health. Dr. Price leads the Human Trafficking Collaborative Network, at Washington University’s Institute for Public Health.

Tell us about your work related to human rights, gender and migration.

I work on domestic and global human trafficking from a public health approach. Human trafficking intersects with several other sub-fields of gender-based violence, such as domestic violence and sexual abuse. Globally, human trafficking is exacerbated in places where political conflicts and economic exploitation lead many people to migrate and seek asylum. An atrocious example of the intersection of human trafficking with human rights abuses is the 2014 genocide and sexual enslavement of the Yazidi people by ISIL in Iraq. I do not use “slavery” lightly, but this situation was one of worst cases of human trafficking in a conflict. Domestic examples also abound. For instance, some evidence suggests that asylum seekers from Latin America can end up being trafficked during transit and after arriving in the U.S.  

How did you get started in this work?

It is still somewhat of a mystery in my cognitive map. With my expertise in the area of psychological trauma, PTSD, and trauma-associated syndromes such as addiction, as well as nearly 20 years of employing epidemiologic methods, I had wanted to make more of an impact at a community level, even in my modest way. That was around 2013. One day, I “discovered” human trafficking. As I studied this field more closely, I was dismayed to find that the mental and physical consequences for victims were likely much worse than the populations I had been examining, such as war veterans and military personnel. There weren’t many reliable data on epidemiology of this population and the methods used back then were not advanced. I felt like the field was where psychiatry was 30 years ago. I saw that our society has failed to establish a safety net for human trafficking victims, who are so stigmatized. Community advocacy movements were also fragmented. Unfortunately, emerging evidence suggests that the on-going Covid-19 pandemic is likely worsening the economic condition of trafficked victims and disrupting existing specialized community services.  

What is one myth / misconception most people have about the issue you work on?

The pervasive myth about what human trafficking looks like is still bothersome. Even now some community anti-trafficking advocacy groups still use a sensational and racially biased image of a trafficking victim – a white, blond, thin girl being physically restrained. That “kidnapped girl next door” tragedy can still happen, but it is empirically rather rare. From our public health approach, human trafficking occurs as a severe outcome of distributive injustice, globally and domestically.

Tell us about one connection between research, policy, and practice that you have seen in your work.

Even though research and advocacy can help reduce human trafficking, we ultimately need policy changes to increase awareness and identification of potential victims, as well as funding to assist in their recovery process. For example, U.S. federal statutes define sex trafficking as a crime involving “force, fraud, or coercion,” except in cases of those younger than 18. At the state level, 28 states and the District of Columbia prohibit the criminalization of minors for prostitution, but a bill clearly defining this exception for children has not passed in Missouri. We found that some law makers needed to be informed about these “nuances” with empirical data. Closing such a fundamental legal gap would help Missouri create comprehensive safe harbor laws that protect children from being criminalized for prostitution. Research findings and empirical data sometimes help persuade law makers.

What would be your dream project or collaboration, and why?

Well, a dream project would be to develop a supply chain policy and monitoring protocol that can be adopted by Missouri’s major industries, including higher education. People may have heard of “supply chain” problems during the pandemic, because global commodity production and distribution networks have been severely disrupted. Some supply chain systems are so complex, it is near impossible to disentangle what came from where and how it was produced. While conscientious consumers may look for a Fairtrade mark when they buy coffee and chocolate, consumer electronics (computers, mobile phones) and garments are the top two at-risk products for labor trafficking and exploitation. Those supply chains are much more complex, and according to recent reliable estimates, the U.S. is responsible for over 40% of the estimated $354 billion in consumption of at-risk products among wealthy countries.

In the long run, supply chain management and monitoring not only reduces the pace of environmental destruction, but if extended to include ethical and sustainable standards for workers’ human rights, it can also reduce global labor exploitation and trafficking. Regulatory mechanisms are more advanced in Europe, although certain US sectors show positive trends. The Department of Labor has started to fund supply chain tracing studies. Technologies such as the blockchain can be utilized to scale up downstream tracing of goods. When such technological infrastructure becomes readily available to anti-trafficking activists, it could be feasible to monitor and regulate supply chains even among institutions of higher education. I believe that if we claim to be working to improve the human rights of vulnerable populations, we should monitor our own built-environment, including our work environment.