Shining a Light on Human Trafficking

The simplest definition of human trafficking is “stealing freedom for profit.”  It is the motto of the Polaris Project, a leading national resource for information and intervention.  Visit their website Polaris Project. The non-profit project is named for Polaris, the star that guided slaves to freedom at an earlier time in US history.

It is clear that slavery is alive, well, and living not only in the United States but around the world.  Various resources cite human trafficking as either the second or third largest criminal enterprise in the world. Due to the difficulty of gathering accurate data, estimates on the number of individuals trafficked per year is somewhere between 25 and 40 million. It is estimated that as many as half of the victims are male, with GBTQ boys being at highest risk. Young girls and boys are also at high risk for sexual slavery.

Not all victims are trafficked from other countries.  Homeless and economically vulnerable children and young adults are also at risk. Individuals can be trafficked in their own home towns and cities.  They are trafficked by friends, family members, romantic partners and even parents.  They are essentially “sold” into indentured servanthood, forced marriage, sexual slavery and untenable employment situations, to name a few.

It is commonly assumed that trafficking means that victims are moved from place to place. It is true in some cases. For example, trafficked sex slaves are often transported to areas where large sporting events are scheduled, such as the Super Bowl and NCAA tournaments. Delta Airline has trained some 60,000 of their employees to spot the signs of sex trafficking. Other transportation services are slowly following suit.  However, many trafficked slaves stay in one place throughout their servitude. 

Most victims are prohibited from leaving their handlers. However, even if they are not forcibly held in their servitude, they may lack the basic physical resources to escape.  Some have been so manipulated they fear for their safety or the safety of their children/family.  Others are so traumatized they are no longer able to realize they are under another’s control.

Sexual exploitation is one form of human trafficking and includes sexual slavery, prostitution and forced marriage, to name a few.  Other forms of human trafficking are found in the hospitality industry, restaurants, cleaning services, construction and factory work.  Legitimate businesses are the front for trafficked individuals, a source of free or cheap labor. For a map of trafficking in the US and the top industries for trafficking click here. Trafficking also includes forced tissue and organ removal, e.g. kidneys.  For women it includes forced harvesting of ova and surrogacy.

Human trafficking is happening in every city in every state in the United States.  It is happening in small towns and suburbs.  There are an estimated 40,000 trafficked human beings in the United States.  In 2017 the Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that one in seven endangered runaways were likely sex trafficking victims. Human trafficking is an invisible and often silent crime that no one wants to talk about. 

Education, awareness and willingness to get involved by reporting suspected trafficking is a first step to aiding federal and international agencies working to end trafficking. The national hotline for Human Trafficking is 1-888-373-7888.  You can learn more about human trafficking by visiting the Polaris website at Polaris Project. org

Some of the signs of trafficking include, but are not limited to:

  • Appearance of undernourishment
  • For children of school age, sudden prolonged absence
  • Use of scripted responses in social interaction
  • Fear of authority figures
  • Absence of identification or lack of official documents
  • Lack of personal possessions
  • Limited freedom of movement
  • Low or no wages for work
  • Unusually long work hours under oppressive conditions
  • Large debt, especially for foreign victims who were lured by the promise of a better life
  • Living and working at the same place

In the Judeo-Christian tradition the poor and the vulnerable are among those for whom society as a whole is called to be concerned and to act.  There is no shortage of vulnerable populations in our exploitative economy. Our national economy is rigged to benefit the rich and victimize the poor. 

It is said that the humanity of a society is visible in how it treats its most vulnerable members.  While the occupant may say the United States is the greatest country in the world, and in many ways it is, we are getting a failing grade when it comes to the poor and vulnerable. Greed appears to be one of the most pernicious of sins in our culture and in our world.

Exploiting persons’ dreams for a better life is unconscionable. Taking advantage of someone’s abject vulnerability, poverty or lack of social resources is how many innocent victims land in the clenches of ruthless traffickers.

It is easy to feel helpless, like we often do with so many social ills; but change begins with awareness of the crisis of human trafficking. Learn to recognize the signs and symptoms. Support agencies that provide services to the poor and needy. Report suspicions to the authorities. The worst that can happen is that employers may be embarrassed and inconvenienced.  You also might save a life. The trade-off is worth it.

In so many areas of our society the mantra is, “If you see something, say something.”  It works here too.

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