I sometimes avoid issues that seem too overwhelming, and human trafficking has long fallen into that category. My conscience was pricked more than a year ago by a Lynne Hybels column in Sojourners. She too was overwhelmed but urged readers to do something to learn more about human trafficking, then share the info with others and if possible find ways to act against this hidden blight on humanity. A recent afternoon session at a local retreat center called “Human Trafficking: Around the World and Around the Corner” brought my head out of the sand; learning about a difficult subject in community was easier than reading on my own. From the start, it provided a rational overview of statistics and definitions, patterns and trends that made me sit up and pay close attention.
Our speaker, Sarah McCormick, spent more than two years in Thailand volunteering with an anti-trafficking organization. The issue first came to her awareness in her previous position as a social worker with the YWCA in Cincinnati. Yes, she encountered victims of trafficking right here in Cincinnati.
Who is trafficked?
Victims of trafficking are of every gender, age, race, nationality and religion. An estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people worldwide become victims annually, according to the U.S. State Dept, and as many as 300,000 minors are brought into the United States each year. Up to 27 million people are enslaved around the world. While the United States is mainly a destination for trafficked victims worldwide, domestic trafficking also occurs. These victims typically are school dropouts, often in the foster care system; sadly, they are labeled “runaways and throwaways.” The most common countries of origin are Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand, Guatemala, Honduras and India. Most are represented in Cincinnati. This map showing the routes of where people start and where they are taken startled me with its similarity to the maps of 17th and 18th century slave trade that I used with my children when we were homeschooling. We think of slavery as something that happened “back then,” but it’s a horrible fact of the here and now, though more insidious for being in the shadows.
How does it happen?
Trafficking mostly occurs in the context of voluntary migration driven by poverty. People are recruited for jobs, but when they arrive the job is very different than what they were told. Meanwhile, they’re in debt for the transport to the person who brought them, paid poorly if at all, their movements controlled, in the U.S. without documentation, not proficient in English – therefore trapped, at the mercy of someone who can make credible threats against their family or neighbors back home.
Where are the victims?
Everywhere in our midst, but we typically don’t notice. In this country, they are in factories, domestic positions, construction, nail salons, health and elder care settings and the hospitality industry, as well as the commercial sex trade.
It’s a lucrative business producing an estimated $32 billion per year. Traffickers are both individuals and crime syndicates. An individual can earn more than $1,000 per month per person. There is a demand for cheap labor as our economy becomes increasingly service-based.
What can be done?
Human trafficking is very hard to detect and prove. Because of their frequent undocumented status, victims are reluctant to seek help, especially from law enforcement, who all too often are involved via bribes. Ohio now has what is considered a “tier one” law, though it was one of the last states to implement anti-trafficking legislation. This law includes provisions that protect minors arrested for sex solicitation, penalties for the trafficker, and civil avenues for victims to sue the trafficker and recover wages.
If rescued, victims continue to face challenges. Substance abuse issues are common, as traffickers might have gotten them addicted as a means of control and to keep them tethered. Dental and vision problems, physical injuries from abuse, as well as sexually transmitted diseases, are also typical. Any past involvement with the legal system puts up additional barriers. As a social worker, Ms. McCormick discovered that in some domestic violence situations the wrong person gets arrested. The victim of trafficking can easily be portrayed as the perpetrator and end up with a criminal record that precludes housing or educational assistance later on. The same holds for someone sold into the commercial sex trade who is arrested for prostitution. Ohio’s new law allows for such charges to be expunged.
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