We must end human trafficking

By Jillian Correira

Freedom Cafe, opened March 2013, is entirely run by volunteers and is donation-based, with all proceeds going to building vocational centers in India for victims of human trafficking. (Chelsie Field/Daily Collegian)
Freedom Cafe, opened March 2013, is entirely run by volunteers and is donation-based, with all proceeds going to building vocational centers in India for victims of human trafficking. (Chelsie Field/Daily Collegian)

In the beginning of February, law enforcement officers arrested 45 people in connection with human sex trafficking and related offenses in New York. On Feb. 21, a man and his wife were found guilty on charges of running a sex-trafficking operation out of their home in the Boston area. The next day, the Associated Press reported that Louisiana local law enforcement and FBI officials had arrested 30 people “in connection with sex trafficking during the NBA All-Star weekend in New Orleans.”

And that’s just in the United States—in one month.

Human trafficking is a big, lucrative business involving 161 countries, with traffickers making an estimated $32 billion annually. While the most common form of human trafficking is sexual exploitation, it also involves “forced labor, domestic servitude, child begging or the removal of their organs,” according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. According to an FBI bulletin, human sex trafficking is “the most common form of modern-day slavery,” with estimates of its international and domestic victims well into the millions, mostly women and children.

I once did a report on human trafficking in Thailand for a journalism course. It was the first time I had ever researched the topic, and it both terrified and sickened me. And in the process of learning about this worldwide crisis, it became clear to me that human trafficking doesn’t just exist on the opposite side of the globe. It is easy for us to believe that such reprehensible crimes only happen thousands of miles away. But the reality is that depravity doesn’t discriminate by country, and the United States isn’t an exception.

The New York, Boston and New Orleans examples are just a few in the ongoing string of human trafficking activity in the U.S. From Dec. 7, 2007 to Dec. 31, 2012, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center received over 72,000 interactions (including emails, phone calls and online tips) from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., that resulted in “reports of 9,298 unique cases of human trafficking,” according to a Polaris Project study.

That number doesn’t reflect the actual number of human trafficking instances in the United States, but it indicates that the scope is much larger. As many as 100,000 children might be trafficked in the United States each year, signifying that the total number of victims (a difficult statistic to research due to under-reporting and the concealed nature of the crime) most likely reaches well into the hundreds of thousands. Somewhere between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year as well.

Human trafficking doesn’t solely exist in underground lairs on the outskirts of society; it happens in hotels, bars, restaurants, nail salons, and even in people’s homes. Perpetrators often groom their victims, especially the youngest and/or most vulnerable, by drawing them in and gaining their trust, creating a sense of dependency. Traffickers might lure victims by way of false promises to improve their lives and their families’ lives. Though this type of emotional manipulation is common, traffickers will also resort to physical and psychological abuse to gain control over their victims.

The problem of human trafficking might be overwhelming in scale, but with global awareness and action, it can be stopped in our lifetime. The U.S. Department of State offers a list of ways you can help fight human trafficking, including learning the red flags that might signify human trafficking, and being a “conscientious consumer” by encouraging companies to “eliminate slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains.” The list suggests good ways for students, parents, professors, business owners and law-enforcement officials to take steps toward creating awareness and, subsequently, a society well-prepared for action.

And every effort counts. At the Freedom Cafe, which opened just across from Totman Gym in Amherst in March 2013, donations are collected in lieu of mandated prices for products. These proceeds are used to fund the construction of vocational centers in India where survivors of human trafficking, largely women and children, will be taught job skills.

According to the most recent Polaris Project report, 39 states have passed updated anti-human trafficking laws, 32 of them in the “top-tier” of fighting human trafficking. Massachusetts is one of them. But the abolishment of this organized crime that is estimated to have enslaved more people than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade requires cooperation from all 50 states and from countries around the world. Slavery still exists, and the obligation to end it falls on us all.

Jillian Correira is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]