December 2015

Caught in Traffic: The sad reality of modern-day slavery

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

If you think slavery ended with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, you might be surprised to learn that, worldwide, as many as 27 million people are being bought and sold today—more than any time in history. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry and is estimated to have a market value in excess of $32 billion annually.

Stories about human trafficking are often set in far-away places, which may make the problem seem remote. However, if you open your eyes and ears, you will find that slavery is everywhere. Victims of human trafficking are found in many U.S. industries, such as agriculture, domestic work, factory labor, restaurants, nail salons, massage parlors and strip clubs. Of course, not all workers in these settings are victims, but these industries are hotbeds for trafficking activity. Hubs of demand include areas with proximity to international or state borders, seaports, major interstates, military installations, sporting events and resorts.

What is human trafficking?
Human trafficking is the illegal trading of people for forced labor or sexual exploitation. Human trafficking involves men, women and children being brought into a situation of exploitation through the use of violence, deception or coercion. People are trafficked for many purposes, including forced prostitution, labor, criminality, domestic servitude, marriage and organ removal.

While poverty and lack of education are factors that increase vulnerability, human trafficking doesn’t discriminate on the basis of age, race, gender, or religion. Victims include children from middle-class families, women with college degrees, and people from dominant religious or ethnic groups.

Victims may also be trafficked into the United States from other countries or may be foreign citizens already in the United States (legally or illegally) who are desperate to make a living to support themselves and their families. Many are tricked into believing that they are being offered legitimate employment opportunities only to arrive and discover that the jobs they were promised don’t exist. Others are foster children, runaways or “throwaways,”—troubled youth who fall prey to the sex industry. And some are innocent children.

When children are trafficked, no violence, deception or coercion is necessary. Simply bringing them into exploitative conditions constitutes trafficking. According to ECPAT-USA, a nonprofit that fights the sexual exploitation of children, an estimated 100,000 children (both girls and boys), are being traded for sex right here in the United States of America. Children in the U.S. are usually recruited between ages 12-14, and many have been sexually abused prior to being trafficked.

According to humantraffickingsearch.net, traffickers use a variety of tactics to lure young girls into the business. “Romeo pimps” buy them gifts and make them feel special before forcing them to have sex with other men. Others entice young people with alcohol and drugs; and some send in a girl already under their control to recruit them. Cruel and violent traffickers, known as “gorilla pimps,” use abuse and control, often ambushing young girls and beat them into submission.

Hitting home
It is human nature to dismiss that which does not directly affect our lives. Like rubberneckers making our way down the information highway, we may slow down to gawk, but we rarely stop… until the problem hits close to home. Such has been the case with human trafficking, as we go along our merry way, pretending not to see or thankful that it is someone else’s problem. Or have we simply become immune?

January has been proclaimed “Human Trafficking Awareness Month.” But area organizations are on a year-round mission to call attention to the many faces of modern day slavery and put a stop to the atrocities that can no longer be dismissed as remote or insignificant.

If you don’t believe it’s happening in your backyard, peruse the listings on Craig’s List or Back Pages. “While it may look like the person is posting the ad, he or she is likely the victim of a trafficker who is in complete control,” said the founder and director of Fresh Start Healing Heart, a local organization serving five counties, whom for safety purposes we will refer to as Susan Smith (not her real name). To bring the local issue into clearer perspective, plug in Operation Dark Night on your favorite search engine and read about the 2013 bust in neighboring Savannah, Georgia, which revealed an underworld of sexual exploitation operating throughout the Southeast, including Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas.

While human trafficking may be flying beneath your radar, many everyday purchases and activities can be traced to this heinous industry. Chances are the holiday decorations you just packed away, the shoes you are wearing or the food you ate today were all produced or partially produced by child or forced laborers. Want to know more? Visit products of slavery.org.

Perhaps even more absurd is the realization that sex trafficking may be hiding in plain sight—in your bedroom, at a nightclub, a hotel, a restaurant or adult entertainment venue around the corner. If you are using pornography to spice up your sex life, you are enabling traffickers to exploit more victims. If you have visited a strip club, hired an “escort,” or received sexual services at a “massage parlor” or through an online advertisement, odds are high that you lined the pockets of a trafficker.

Major sporting events such as the Super Bowl are fertile fields for traffickers who transport victims to work. One survivor said she was expected to provide sexual services to 30 men a day during such events.

But traffickers are difficult to catch and convict. “These are brilliant business people and master manipulators,” Smith said, stating that sex traffickers average $200 an hour in exchange for the use of another person’s body, with the going rate for a virgin much higher.

Smith says children (defined as anyone under age 18) and young adults are often lured into the sex business by offers of modeling or recording contracts. Once the victim fills out an application, the trafficker has all of their personal information, which opens the door for control through threats, she explained, citing an example of a trafficker killing a child’s dog and threatening to harm her family members if she failed to cooperate. “Victims are given a story and told what to do and say,” Smith said. “Girls are prettied up for the johns [a common term for consumers of commercial sex], but no matter how willing they look, they are victims.”

There is a cross-culture as well, in which victims may be exploited for both labor and sex. “There are many hidden victims that people don’t notice,” Smith said. “They may work as maids, dishwashers, nannies or in hotels or at nail salons. They don’t talk about it, and many blame themselves.”

What you can do to help
The Lowcountry Coalition Against Human Trafficking and associated organizations are in need of donations and volunteers. “We have incredible services here,” Smith said, “but what is missing is shelter and long-term case management to help ease victims back into who they are and who they want to be.”

For Fresh Start Healing Heart, the ultimate goal is to build a house where survivors can be sheltered and protected while receiving the services they need to recover from a variety of local resources. The organization will host a fundraiser on January 24 from 6-9 p.m. Details will be announced on their website, freshstarthealingheart.org and Facebook page.

If you choose not to get involved directly by donating money or time, you can still play an important role. Start by educating yourself regarding the origin of goods and services you purchase and learning to recognize the signs of a trafficking situation. For a list of potential red flags, visit humantraffickingresourcecenter.org.

And if you are tempted to indulge in paid-for sex because you are lonely, out of town, entertaining business clients or hosting a bachelor’s party, remind yourself that you are part of the problem, because without the demand, there would be no supply.

For more information, to volunteer, donate money or get involved, contact the Lowcountry Coalition Against Human Trafficking at lcaht.org or Fresh Start Healing Heart at freshstarthealingheart.org.

Stop Traffic
If you believe you have information about a trafficking situation, do not confront, but report. Contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s tip line at (888) 373-7888; call 911; or text 233733.

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