10/23 UPDATE: Hidden in Plain Sight, a new study released 10/21 by the Urban Institute and Northeastern University evaluates for the first time the comprehensive state of labor trafficking in the United States. Just one fact from the study shows how little most people understand about this problem. How do these trafficked people come to the United States? Most of us might guess they walk through the desert bordering Arizona and New Mexico. That’s wrong. Some 71 percent of them arrive by airplane. The study’s grim conclusion: “There’s a long way to go when it comes to thinking about how to prevent 21st-century slavery within American borders.”
Once Governor Rick Snyder signs a series of new bills sent him last week by the Michigan legislature, minors involved in prostitution will be treated as victims instead of criminals, and children will be able to clear their records of crimes their traffickers forced them to commit. Amazingly, such laws are not universal in the United States, according to Rachel Lloyd, who created the New York-based Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) to help girls and young women experiencing commercial sexual exploitation or domestic trafficking.
The message of a current exhibit at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, uses quotes and photos to tell the story of four people, three from the local area, to show that “human trafficking is a local problem, and there are things people can do in Eastern Iowa to fight it,” says exhibit organizer Mindy Pfab. She wants people to realize that even if they don’t know someone who is being trafficked, they may well know someone who is vulnerable—runaways and other children with unstable home lives, minority and low-income children, those with a history of sexual abuse, and young women involved with gang members—bearing in mind that the average age when a person is trafficked is 12.
A forum last Thursday in Lima, Ohio, focused on human trafficking in its annual Take Back the Night event at the Ohio State University-Lima campus. As the keynote speaker from the state Attorney General’s Office said, we will not “arrest our way out of” this problem. Reasons other simplistic solutions don’t work, including “why don’t they just leave?” arguments, are explored in Rachel Lloyd’s TEDxUChicago talk. Escape isn’t so easy. A little more than 12 years ago, Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at knifepoint from her bedroom and found nine months later in a Utah town only 18 miles from her Salt Lake City home. As an articulate advocate for abused children, Smart provides compelling testimony (here in a New Yorker article by Margaret Talbot) about why the determination to survive sometimes means staying put.
It Happens Here
I focused on these current stories from the American heartland to emphasize that no part of our country is immune from this problem. In the United States, several hundred thousand people—many of them children and teens—are sexually exploited and engaged in forced labor. This number includes both boys and girls, pre-teens, teens, and adults, native-born Americans, people smuggled in from other countries, and foreigners here legally. Journalist Faricour Hemani explores the range of countries and types of trafficking in a TEDx SugarLand talk that includes excerpts from situations uncovered in a 6-part BBC series.
Readers who work in the health care industry may be interested in a 10-minute Catholic Health Initiatives educational video introducing the topic of human trafficking (definitely safe for work). My friend Colleen Scanlon opens the video, which recognizes that many trafficked or sexually exploited individuals come into contact with the health care system, making it a potential point of intervention. Because these young people are living on the margins, solutions also must include economic empowerment, not just for current victims, but for preventing future victimization.
It Happens to Individuals
Prompted by Colleen’s video, I collected resources for this post, and they represent a sea of powerful individual stories, each one unique—stories of cruelty and resilience, tragedy and escape. These are real-life stories in numbers we don’t like to think about. Not just somewhere else. Here. And they are stories that need to be told until laws, such as Michigan’s change and society refocuses on prevention. Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, shocked by the reality of human trafficking in his own country, took up the challenge in The Shadow Girls, reviewed here in 2013. There’s no bottom line to this, except for the greater need to be aware and beware. In Michigan, in Cedar Rapids, in Lima, Ohio, where you are.
Huffington Post’s “10 Things You Didn’t Know about Slavery and Human Trafficking and What You Can Do about It” – pleased to see New Jersey has some of country’s best anti-trafficking laws!
The Polaris Project – named after the North Star that guided slaves to freedom in the U.S.
GEMS – Girls Educational and Mentoring Services