Author: Kitty Bartell
It is a $32 billion industry that impacts the lowcountry like a cat burglar; silently stealing something away with few visible signs.
Annually, as many as 800,000 people are directly affected by its reach, with the majority being women between 18 and 24 years of age. Forty-three percent of its victims are used for forced commercial sexual exploitation, ninety-eight percent of them women and girls, with the rest being used primarily as forced labor. The industry is linked tightly with illegal arms. The industry is human trafficking.
In January of 2012, human trafficking, and its presence in Savannah, was brought into the light by Operation Dark Night, which took down a major sex trafficking ring operating out of Atlanta, Miami, the Carolinas, and Savannah. Its presence in Savannah, and the similar demographic, geographic, and economic aspects of the Lowcountry, make the area a prime target for this modern day form of slavery.
“We know that human trafficking tends to occur in tourist areas, near military installations, and along our interstates. If you put all three together, it seems to indicate that Beaufort County may be a prime location for human trafficking,” said Daniel Brownstein, communications director for the Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor’s office and steering committee member for the Lowcountry Coalition Against Human Trafficking (LCAHT). The organization has a four-year history of looking this problem square in the face and saying STOP by working to educate and enlighten residents about what human trafficking is and how to help the often silent victims.
According to antislavery.org, human trafficking involves transporting people away from the communities in which they live and forcing them to work against their will, using violence, deception or coercion. Human trafficking is slavery, and because of the “hidden” nature of its victims, estimates are broad; however, indications are that between 10 million and 27 million slaves exist in the world today—more than any other time in history. According to UNICEF and Innocence Atlanta, every minute, two children are sold into slavery, and an estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked each year.
LCAHT was formed in 2010 under the leadership of local advocate Janice Dyer and under the auspices of the Zonta Club of Hilton Head Island. The group’s website states that, “It has grown into a network of medical and healthcare organizations, law enforcement, municipal governments, victim service providers, business organizations, faith-based and civic groups, media outlets and residents who have a passion for uncovering and eradicating this form of modern-day slavery.”
“We’ve had great support from law enforcement here. They attend our meetings and informational sessions,” Brownstein said. “They are much more aware of what human trafficking looks like, and how they can investigate it.”
LCAHT meets several times each year, presents educational programs throughout the year, and hosts one or two big education sessions annually. In addition to bringing its informational programs to community groups, Rotary clubs, civic organizations, and groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs, LCAHT has effected much needed legislative awareness and change.
“One of our signature accomplishments so far happened in 2012,” Brownstein said. “We were part of a statewide initiative to lobby the legislature for a better human trafficking law. At the time, the Polaris Project [a Federal program that works to disrupt the conditions that allow human trafficking to thrive] had listed South Carolina as one of their ‘dirty dozen’ states that didn’t have adequate laws to address human trafficking. Jan Dyer, along with a lot of other folks with the coalition, joined other groups from around the state and lobbied the legislature for a more comprehensive human trafficking law. We went up to Columbia in January of 2012. We met a lot of legislators, one of whom was a big supporter of what we were trying to do, but she told us in very blunt terms that this law had no chance of passing that legislative session. We went home and we kept at it, sending e-mails, making phone calls. People throughout the state did the same thing. It ended up being passed by the legislature that season and was signed by Governor Haley in June of 2012. That was our first really big win. We now have a human trafficking law that clearly defines what it is that is illegal and provides some assistance to victims.”
This new law has created a framework that aids groups like LCAHT to better effect change locally, along with setting up a statewide task force with a set of five comprehensive areas of focus: 1) Determining the magnitude of human trafficking in South Carolina; 2) Protecting, supporting, and serving victims of human trafficking; 3) Investigating and prosecuting human traffickers; 4) Preventing human trafficking in South Carolina; and 5) Areas for additional consideration and study. Locally, Brownstein said, “We hope a shelter will be created for human trafficking victims in South Carolina. We are actively advocating for one in either Charleston, Columbia or Greenville.”
Hilton Head Island resident and LCAHT volunteer Candy Eazor became involved in the fall of 2013. “I wanted to volunteer in some way, and somebody told me about an informational meeting here on the island. We think it’s a third world country issue, and it is; but it’s here too,” she said. Eazor has participated in various ways with the group and says that awareness is the key to helping victims. “It is mostly young girls who are promised a border crossing, and then when they get here, the person who brought them says, ‘You still owe us money, but you can work it off.’ Then they lock them in a hotel room, moving them around from city to city. They are told the police are the enemy. A lot of times drugs are involved. They don’t know where they are, and they don’t speak English,” Eazor said.
According to antislavery.org, human trafficking involves transporting people away from the communities in which they live and forcing them to work against their will, using violence, deception or coercion.
LCAHT is looking forward to one of its larger upcoming educational sessions being held September 19, 2014. Brownstein says there will be as many as four guest speakers, addressing various aspects of human trafficking, including perspective from the local, state, and national/international levels, as well as someone from the victim services community. So far on the docket is Jason Medica, the ICE (Immigration and Customs) agent who investigated Operation Dark Night. He will be speaking about the investigation, what they uncovered, and how everything came together. The second scheduled speaker is Marie Sazehn, from the Attorney General’s office, and coordinator of the South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force.
“It’s a good way to come out and get an overview of the issue, from what’s happening locally, all the way up to the international level, as well as, what victims of human trafficking need in order to recover from it,” Brownstein said. “Our biggest hurdle has been to combat the notion that human trafficking doesn’t occur here. It’s such a clandestine crime that it’s hard to get your arms around just how prevalent it is, because it’s so secretive.” Information is the best kind of power.
LCAHT’s September 19 meeting is free and open to the public.
It will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Palmetto Electric
building located at 1 Cooperative Way, Hardeeville, across from USCB.
For more information, please email email@example.com or call (843) 255-5911.