EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part I of a two-part series on human trafficking.
BY DEBBIE PAGE
Human trafficking affects an estimated 24.9 million people worldwide.
According to Walk Free, an international human rights organization devoted to ending this criminal activity, that staggering number could be dramatically reduced if the demand for cheap labor and prostitution was eliminated.
Human trafficking is modern day slavery. The term covers debt bondage, forced marriage, slave-like practices, and human trafficking, including commercial sex or forced labor.
Partners Health Management’s Jeanne Patterson said the victims are often targeted for their vulnerabilities. People who are immigrants, homeless, runaways, LBGTQIA+, people of color or indigenous people, who are in in foster care, who have substance use or mental health disorders, or who have limited resources or support are potential targets for traffickers.
The traffickers work to meet the targeted person’s specific needs, gain his or her trust, and then manipulate them slowly into the desired behavior, either commercial sex or forced labor.
Traffickers sometimes use violence but most often use threats of exposure of their sexual acts or a debt bondage (for travel and living expenses or other costs) to coerce work, especially from immigrants who do not have legal status.
Recruitment is now most commonly through internet contact, which increased 22 percent in 2020 during the pandemic. Recruitment also increased through Facebook (up 125 percent over 2019) and Instagram (up 95 percent).
Malls, movie theaters, sporting events, concerts, and other venues frequented by youths are common in-person recruiting sites.
The Polaris organization analyzed U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline’s 16,658 calls in 2020, reporting 10,836 sex trafficking victims, 3,583 labor victims, 631 sex and labor victims, and 1,634 individuals with unspecified trafficking situations.
Trafficking is most prevalent in escort services, pornography, residential based commercial sex, personal sexual servitude, outdoor solicitation, domestic work, in bars and strip clubs, and Illicit massage, health, beauty, and other activities, according to Polaris.
Worldwide, women and girls are disproportionately victimized, accounting for 99 percent of sexual trafficking and 58 percent of commercial trafficking. One in four victims are under 18.
In poor countries, recruiters offer parents education and employment opportunities for their children, along with the enticement of money being sent home, to trick parents into signing away their children to human traffickers.
Of those trapped in international human trafficking, 64 percent are in forced labor, 19 percent in commercial sex, and the rest in state-imposed forced labor.
Human trafficking is also big business. The International Labor Organization said that trafficking generated $150 billion in profits in 2014, the most recent data available.
Researchers estimated $99 billion earned for commercial sex, $34 billion in construction, mining, and other manufacturing, $9 billion for agriculture, and $8 billion in reduced costs for domestic labor in private homes.
SIGNS OF TRAFFICKING
Teachers, waiters, flight attendants, medical staff and others who work with vulnerable people have saved lives and liberated trafficking victims from this forced servitude because they were trained to see the signals.
Signs of trafficking include lack of freedom of movement, working long and unusual hours, not allowed breaks or have unusual restrictions, not having control of identity documents, receiving gifts or money in a fast-moving, romantic relationship, living with someone who is not a parent or guardian, a close relationship with someone they know solely on social media, being offered a job opportunity too good to be true, or being recruited for an opportunity that requires them to move far away but without detailed job information.
On a personal level, the person may disconnect from family, friends, and community, stop attending school, show dramatic changes in behavior, engage in commercial sex acts, or may appear disoriented or confused, or show signs of mental or physical abuse.
Other signs are bruises in various stages of healing; fearful, timid, or submissive behavior; signs of malnutrition, exhaustion, or ill health; being controlled by a person as to their movements or contacts; or seeming to be coached or looking to another person to answer questions or to respond in conversations.
Other signs are a lack of awareness of date or place, lack of clarity about living situation, or their stories do not line up or make sense, said Patterson.
CHILDREN ARE AT RISK
In the U.S., an estimated 300,000 children under age 18 are caught up in minor sex trafficking, generating an estimated $9.5 billion in income annually for their handlers. Patterson said these latest numbers are pre-2020, so she expects they are much higher now.
Eighty-three percent of the children are American born. Most of the children enter this horrifying world at an average of 13 to 14 years of age.
North Carolina ranks seventh in the nation in making calls to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline to report trafficking or suspected trafficking.
According to Project No Rest, 26,500 children were reported as runaways in the U.S. An estimated one in five will end up being trafficked.
In 2018, 27 percent of children were trafficked by a familial relation. Fifty-five percent reported still attending school while being trafficked. Of children being trafficked, 45 percent were children of color.
Patterson said traffickers earn an estimated $150,000 to $200,000 per child annually, with most controlling four to six girls.
After grooming by traffickers, most enter sex trafficking situations by exotic dancing or stripping. Some are sexually abused or raped while being filmed, with the trafficker threatening to show the video to friends and family unless they cooperate.
Once the victim is in control, traffickers switch from charm to verbal abuse, telling them they are ugly and worthless and that friends and family would be disgusted by them. “When all you hear is a negative voice, it’s hard to think differently,” said Patterson.
REPORT SUSPECTED TRAFFICKING
Everyone can help victims of human trafficking by being informed about the issue and being aware of the warning signs. If something suspicious occurs, report the situation, including detailed descriptions of who or what was observed.
If possible, safely take pictures and note license plate numbers and call quickly after the encounter so law enforcement can take action.
Because traffickers are dangerous, citizens should not personally intervene. If the situation is an emergency or immediate danger is noted, instead call 911 and alert local police of possible human trafficking.
The U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline number is 1-888-373-7888, or text HELP to 233733.
TAKE THE QUIZ
Economically privileged countries enjoy the benefits of human trafficking all over the world. Components for electronics, shrimp, cocoa beans for chocolate, sugar, cotton, gold, and jewels are often produced from trafficked labor.
To see how the impact of your buying and lifestyle choices, take the “End Slavery Now” quiz:
Buying fair trade products is one way to combat human trafficking. Visit Fair Trade USA (https://www.fairtradecertified.org/our-community/shop-fair-trade/) to learn more about purchasing products certified to be free from human trafficking.