The first images that come to mind when you hear the words “human trafficking” usually include ones from popular media where the victims, typically young and wealthy individuals, are miraculously saved soon after they go missing by well-connected family members in action-packed scenes. Often, the savior is glamorized, and the victim is portrayed as an Icarus-like figure who flew too close to the sun and fell to their demise by being prideful and overexcited. This representation of human trafficking victims is wholly inaccurate in that anyone of any race, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background can end up being trafficked against their will and a quick rescue is challenging to come by.
What is Human Trafficking and Why Should You Care
According to the United States Department of Homeland security, “human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” The act of being trafficked is complex, with many illicit systems in place to ensure trafficked people remain shackled, silent, and subservient. Although there are many misconceptions about the process of trafficking a human being such as the thought that people are kidnapped against their will and always take opportunities to escape when presented with one, these beliefs are not based in fact. Victims are sometimes coerced by human traffickers or slave traders through violent actions, manipulative tactics, false pretenses, and fake relationships. These situations leave individuals feeling trapped with their captors and they may not feel like anyone can help them. Unlike the romanticized portrayals of rescues from drug dens and slave auctions found in movies, the struggles of people who have had their liberty forcibly taken away are not so easy to resolve by arresting one key individual who runs an entire illegal enterprise, thereby leaving a collapsing system from the top-down.
The violation of a person’s right to liberty and the trauma they face while in forced labor or sex trafficking environments are not the only dangers of human trafficking. The United States Department of State outlines multiple ways human trafficking harms not just those who are trafficked, but the nation as a whole in the following ways: human trafficking is a national security risk, it interferes with global markets, and it funnels currency into the hands of criminals. The perception of human trafficking being something that is not the general population’s problem until and unless it comes knocking on your doorstep leaves you vulnerable to manipulation, just like the millions who were manipulated into believing a QAnon trafficking conspiracy theory in July of 2020.
Misinformation and Misunderstandings
A distorted view of human trafficking and the lack of knowledge about how people are controlled by human traffickers led to social media outcry from people around the world when #SaveTheChildren began trending in early July of 2022. Internet users on all platforms from Facebook to Reddit to Instagram and Twitter began rallying against Wayfair for allegedly allowing human traffickers to sell kidnapped children disguised as cabinet and pillow listings on the Wayfair website. To start, the entire affair was part of a conspiracy theory perpetuated by the QAnon conspiracy group that was made viral via an internet user who tweeted a screenshot of expensive storage cabinets with non-generic female names like “Alyvia Storage Cabinet” under the pseudonym Amazing Polly in June of 2020. Polly’s tweet was then circulated by QAnon, of which she is a member, and soon gained traction outside of the far-right political group, trending on social media platforms the following month after the initial tweet was posted.
On the surface, rapid dissemination of information about a supposed human trafficking front is a good thing, however, in this case, the trafficking front allegation turned out to be false on all counts, but by the time the investigation was over, misinformation had been flooding the timelines of millions of people for days. People rallied against Wayfair and demanded justice for the children whose names appeared on listings, leading to an upset of many lives overnight since some of the “missing” children had been at home recovering for months, or years, leaving them living in fear as they watched their personal information circulating online. In this case, well-intentioned public outcry overtaxed Polaris, the nonprofit in charge of the National Human Trafficking Hotline in that connects victims of human trafficking to support resources in America, and made it difficult for the organization to help real victims in need.
Trending stories that go through the social media cycle and lose coverage once they are deemed unmarketable make it hard to trust what you see online, especially if delivered by what you believe are reliable sources and individuals. Knowing what to believe and when to be skeptical is essential to protect yourself from having the wool pulled over your eyes, making you lose sight of any hidden agendas that may be pushed through viral stories. In actuality, the children in the Wayfair listings had their names chosen by an algorithm to differentiate industrial products, and a glitch led to surges in the prices of some pillows.
Spotting A Fake Story
While it is disheartening to not have the truth of the Wayfair matter broadcasted as far and wide as misinformation about the case was, leaving many people still believing in a lie, there are almost 25 million victims of human trafficking in the world at any given moment who have been ripped away from any possibility of normal life and may never escape their new, harrowing situation. Traffickers profit from this exploitation of individuals, whether it be sex trafficking, forced labor, or the sale of people to others. Human trafficking may seem like an issue so far out of sight to the everyday person living comfortably in a wealthy country, but the reality is human trafficking could be happening to anyone anywhere in the world. Human traffickers don’t solely target subpopulations shunned by traditional politics, and everyone should remain aware of this danger. The lives of the children whose pictures were circulated around the world during the Wayfair scandal had their lives overturned by well-meaning people who didn’t look closely enough at facts and ended up buying into fiction, taking away dozens of people’s sense of safety and leaving them vulnerable to harm.
It can seem hopeless to think about how you could help a victim of human trafficking who might seem out of reach, but what we can learn from the Wayfair event is to keep in mind that you should always look for facts and not take frenzy-inducing headlines at face value. Remaining questioning until presented with concrete evidence will help limit the spread of misinformation and save resources from being wasted on fake breaking news stories.
If you want more information on how human rights are defined and protected, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created at a United Nations assembly in 1948 to outline globally recognized rights and is a great starting point on the topic.
The issue of immigration in America is one that is divided on so many fronts, and recognizing this division, political leaders have exploited the public’s conflicting views to push their own political agendas. Immigration has a rich history in this nation, and unfortunately, America has had a very unequal approach to how immigrants are treated. While some immigrants, (including many from Western nations) are treated with great respect and dignity, many of the immigrants that come from Central American nations, African nations, or Asian nations are portrayed by many political leaders in the United States as “criminal” or “coming to the US to steal our jobs.” This has been a tactic used historically since the founding of this nation, and it has led to the racial hierarchy that functions in America to this day. Even today, there have been comparisons drafted between Ukrainian refugees and how they are received versus how refugees from Palestine are treated. Ukrainian immigrants were accepted fully without any concern for space, funding, or any of the other arguments that come up in regard to immigration. Palestinian immigrants, who have been struggling with a similar situation as Ukraine, (where another nation has invaded their own nation, claiming property and lives in the process), continue to deal with political attacks and discrimination simply for being Palestinian immigrants. (For more on how countries value immigrants from different nations differently, read a recent post by my colleague Danah Dibb). This discrimination is also present in how immigrants from Central America are treated, including the fact that children are still being held at the border in inhumane conditions separated from their parents.
Additionally, immigrants have been a source of cheap labor for industries since the founding of America. At first, there were indentured servants and slaves that helped build the economic success of America early on. Yet, after slavery was abolished and indentured servitude was outlawed, industries faced a new challenge to find cheap sources of labor to maintain their profit margins without sacrificing their productivity levels. This has led to industries using the modern-day prison industrial complex, (which has evolved slavery and indentured servitude into a legal process), or outsourcing jobs to other poor nations to be able to exploit laborers for their own benefit. Yet, another way that industries have aimed to address their cheap labor needs is through the employment of immigrants, mainly undocumented immigrants who are not protected under American labor laws, and as such, industries can (and do) exploit their labor without any regulations or transparency in the process. Even the process for naturalization and legalization for immigrants is purposefully long and difficult, forcing immigrants to still pay taxes, without receiving any benefits that documented immigrants would receive. Despite the misconceptions of many Americans, immigrants do not take away jobs from the American public; they take on jobs that are generally avoided by most Americans. Also, contrary to the American myth that immigrants are “criminals,” the immigrant population is more rule-abiding than most U.S. citizens. All these facts are relevant to frame the political landscape for immigrants in America. This historical context is necessary for comprehending the full reality of the political stunts that occurred recently in regard to immigrants.
A Bit of Background on Human Trafficking
So, what is human trafficking, and what does it have anything to do with immigrants? Let’s begin with the first question, focusing on what it is, the federal laws on human trafficking as well as international and human rights laws that protect people from being trafficked. Human trafficking is the sale and purchase of human beings for the single reason of exploitation, whether it be for the victims’ labor, or for sexual manipulation. According to the human trafficking institute, over 24 million people worldwide are trafficked, of which 20 million are trafficked for labor-related issues, and another 4.8 million are exploited for the sex industry. These victims of trafficking are comprised of men, women, and children, from various nations, and from any and all age groups. Just looking at the numbers for America, it is estimated that around 14,000-17,000 people are trafficked into the United States. This does not even include the people that are trafficked within the borders, and this estimate is based on reported findings, which means that many people being exploited that have not been reported are not included in this statistic. Of course, as it is with any other issue, the more marginalized the group of people being targeted, the more vulnerable they are to being trafficked. Among other fields such as the sex industry, some of the most popular industries that employ people who are trafficked are the agricultural, manufacturing, domestic, and construction industries, which benefit from the cheap labor force. Victims are coerced into being trafficked through a variety of ways, including the threat of physical and psychological abuse to themselves or their family members (which can include sexual abuse, deprivation of food and sleep, as well as shaming and isolating victims from their family members). Traffickers also abuse the legal system to confuse or manipulate the victims, such as withholding their passports or documents and forcing them to comply with the trafficker’s rules. Immigrants and refugees are especially vulnerable, because they come from another nation, and most of the time, don’t speak the language of the country they are exploited to, are not familiar with that country’s laws, and are also threatened with deportation back to the country they escaped from fearing for their lives.
What protection do people have under the law against being trafficked?
Under most nations’ laws, human trafficking is a heinous crime that can result in serious punishment for those who participate in criminal activity. Protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under Article 4,slavery and forced labor are prohibited. States that have ratified the UDHR are under a bounded obligation to protect the rights outlined in the UDHR. The United States has only selectively ratified the rights outlined by the UDHR, and as such, any issues of accountability they might face for any violations of the UDHR can become complicated. The United States does have its own laws against human trafficking, and according to the American state department, they have made it one of their policy priorities. One such legislation passed in 2000 to address this issue was the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which put into place an updated legal framework that focused on the protection, prevention, and prosecution of human trafficking. Additionally, to better define who falls under the victimhood of trafficked individuals, the A-M-P model was proposed, focusing on the Action, (how the trafficker approached the victims), Means, (what strategies the trafficker employed, mainly force, fraud, or coercion), and the Purpose (for sexual exploitation or labor exploitation) for the trafficking of individuals. This framework helped the legal system better understand not only how the people were trafficked, but also defined the why. With all this being said, let us now move on to the issue of two political leaders, Ron DeSantis of Florida, and Gregg Abbot of Texas, who engaged in the trafficking of migrants across state borders to stage political stunts, in the process of uprooting the lives of many vulnerable immigrants.
Case of Greg Abbot and Ron DeSantis Transporting Migrants Across States
The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbot, in an attempt to make a political statement regarding the United States immigration policies, began loading up busses full of migrants he picked up at the US-Mexico border to then be transported to the houses of his party’s opponents, such as Vice President Kamala Harris. He also proceeded to send busses into cities that are led by Democrats, such as Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York City, arguing that the borders were not secure enough and that the United States allowed too many immigrants into the country. While this argument is far from the actual truth, Abbot is not the only political leader spouting this hateful rhetoric. The cruel tactics that were used were originally made popular by former president Donald Trump in 2019, who envisioned a much more sinister approach to collect all the “rapists and criminals” and “bus and dump” them in blue states to stoke fears against immigrants. The trafficking of migrants has been put into practice many times since then, by political leaders from his own party acting on the former president’s ideas.
Similarly, the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, also put into practice Trump’s “bus and dump” tactic but using a private plane this time, to fly migrants to Massachusetts, a state he claims is a “sanctuary state,” (which means these states or cities have an understood policy, whether written or unwritten, to protect the reporting of immigrants and their status to law enforcement, unless the individual is under investigation for a serious crime). In this latest stunt pulled by DeSantis, with the help of an individual identified as “Perla” (Perla Huerta, who is said to be a former counterintelligence agent for the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq), rounded up 48 migrants in San Antonio, Texas, mostly from Venezuela, and lured them under false pretenses of new opportunities of employment and survival, to board the flight that landed in Martha’s Vineyard. These migrants were handed brochures that came from the Massachusetts Refugee Benefits center (which was made up), and had presented information on the pamphlet which they had copied from the real office for immigration services, Massachusetts Office of Refugee and Immigrants (who had no idea about any of these events). This brochure included “benefits” that the migrants were wrongly led to believe they would be eligible to receive and were flown to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. These benefits included promises of eligibility to receive up to eight months of cash assistance, housing assistance, food, clothing, and transportation assistance, and even help with childcare and education. Not knowing that these were only eligible for documented immigrants that had already been granted asylum, many of the Venezuelan asylum seekers (who had not been granted asylum by the United States) were misinformed and manipulated.
So, what happened to the migrants in both these cases?
Despite the belief by both Abbot and DeSantis that these migrants would not be well-received, the people from the cities where the migrants were dropped off took it upon themselves to ensure that the migrants had adequate food and shelter arrangements as the issues of what to do moving forward were being decided upon. Chicago, one of the cities which received the waves of migrants sent by Governor Abbot, went out of its way to ensure that the migrants’ needs are being met and that they receive the medical care and legal advice they need as they await their fates. Similarly, in Massachusetts, Governor DeSantis’s plan was to drop the migrants off at the foot of a community center and they were told to knock to receive help. No one knew what was happening, but the entire community around Martha’s Vineyard came together to help feed and clothe the migrants. The 48 migrants later ended up at the military base in Cape Cod, using the military’s empty barracks for places to sleep.
If the actions of governors DeSantis and Abbot are run through the A-M-P model discussed earlier, the purpose of these stunts would be the only aspect that might be hard to judge from a legal perspective. The actions the two governors took would clearly fall under the transporting criteria of the first step, and their means would include both fraudulence and coercion for the second step. Although their purpose was of a political nature, they still rounded up migrants through fraudulent means to be migrated forcefully out of their current residence, without a proper place to be sheltered and provided for. While DeSantis dropped the migrants off at Martha’s Vineyard and forced the people there to deal with the aftermath, Abbot transported the migrants to the doorstep of the houses of his party’s political opponents. These actions, if committed by someone, not in a position of political power, would have led to the person facing severe legal repercussions. Yet the two governors have doubled down on their actions, proudly taking responsibility for the stunts, and Abbot even promises that more migrants are on their way, implying that he is not yet finished.
Update: Migrants file lawsuit against DeSantis
Still, DeSantis might face some form of accountability for his actions, as the 48 migrants he flew to Martha’s Vineyard have filed a civil lawsuit against him, claiming that in the process, he violated the fourth and fourteenth amendments as well as many federal laws. The attorneys, on behalf of the migrants filing the lawsuit, are calling on DeSantis to be banned from repeating this political stunt again and are asking for DeSantis to pay for the damages caused to the migrants as a result of his actions. DeSantis came out protesting this accusation, claiming that his actions were legal because he had obtained signed consent forms from all the migrants who boarded that plane. He also alleged that this was not an act of coercion but that the migrants willingly took the journey to Martha’s Vineyard. However, most of the migrants claim they did not know where they were being taken to, only that they were promised good employment opportunities and a chance at a better lifestyle. Many of the migrants that were coerced into getting on the plane did not even speak or understand English. Additionally, there have been updates provided that the funds for these political stunts pulled by DeSantis came from public, tax-payer funds, meaning that this is also a case of misappropriation of state funds. Some legal experts are even proposing that these political stunts can be categorized as “kidnapping” because the victims were moved from one place to another without knowledge about where their destination was going to be. We will have to wait and see how this lawsuit plays out, mainly on the issue of whether there will be any accountability for people in positions of political power.
So, while we await the final verdict from the courts, what can be done to ensure this doesn’t happen again? For one, we could put immense public pressure on the two political leaders using a tactic known as “naming and shaming” to discourage them from pulling similar stunts in the future. However, many people that support these politicians, mainly the Republican base, have applauded the two governors’ behaviors, doubling down on their anti-immigration stances. In a society that continues to become more polarized, “naming and shaming” might have the opposite results than expected. Additionally, another step that can be considered is impeachment, or even banning the two politicians from holding office again. Some people might say this may be a drastic move, but if, as an elected official, you are irresponsible with so many human lives, including those of children, where you think it is okay to treat others with disrespect and ignominy, then you should not be allowed the opportunity to serve a position that would put you in charge of people’s well-being.
Another approach would have to come from the international community, mainly the international criminal courts, in an attempt to hold these individuals accountable for violation of human rights. This too, however, might not be as easy as it seems. For one, the federal courts would have jurisdiction before the international courts, and even still, in 2002, then President George W. Bush “unsigned” the Rome Statute, and a few months later, Congress passed the American Servicemembers Protection Act, which forbade the US from assisting or supporting the ICC or any member states that support the ICC. Further, it granted the president full power over securing the release of any US person, or allies that are held or imprisoned by the ICC. Although there has been renewed interest in revisiting this legislation, from an unlikely individual at that (Lindsey Graham), this support might not extend as far as investigating members of his own party. America has long struggled to hold its political leaders accountable, whether it be for war crimes committed by past presidents, or even for simply acknowledging historical atrocities that have occurred in the nation’s past. However, without proper accountability for these heinous political stunts, the two governors would set a precedent for the worse treatment of migrants in the future.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline,“Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.”Sex trafficking has commonly been regarded as a human rights crisis that receives an inadequate amount of attention. However, recent news articles surrounding the arrest and conviction of musical artist R. Kelly have invoked national concern over the issue of sex trafficking rings. The arrest of R. Kelly highlighted how minors and members of marginalized groups are disproportionally affected by the sex trafficking industry and that the issue cannot go ignored by media outlets and the public. In 2019, nearly 70%of human trafficking victims in the U.S. were identified as either being sex trafficked, or victims of both forced labor and sexual exploitation. The High Court recently stated that 25 million people worldwide are not afforded their fundamental right to freedom; however, the International Labor Organization estimates the number of human trafficking victims to be approximately 40 million. It is difficult to maintain an accurate report of victims and survivors of human trafficking since cases are largely unreported.
Who is most at risk?
Although sex trafficking can happen to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or age, victims are most frequently identified as members of marginalized groups and communities. The National Human Trafficking Hotline stated that “56 percent of prostituted women were initially runaway youth.” Runaway and homeless youth often lack a strong support system making them especially vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking. Since child participation in commercial sex acts of any capacity is illegal in the U.S. and many countries around the world, these children are a part of a strenuously handled special victims group. Other groups susceptible to human trafficking include those who have endured past traumatic events or violence because traffickers exploit trauma to control and attract their victims.
Trafficking in the Pandemic
In recent years, human trafficking has received less attention from the media and general public due to the Covid-19 pandemic occupying the majority of major news publications. The Covid-19 pandemic may have slightly paused our lives; however, the pandemic did not pause trafficking crimes as many law enforcement officials had hoped. Instead, traffickers have used the effects of the pandemic to their advantage. As many people are experiencing higher levels of economic and social vulnerability, there is consequentially a growing number of individuals put at a higher risk of becoming victims of trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State, “COVID-19 mitigation efforts, such as stay-at-home orders and travel limitations, increased rates of gender-based violence and substance abuse, both of which put individuals at a higher risk of human traffickers exploiting them.”
Celebrity Sex Traffickers
American singer and songwriter R. Kelly has recently been accused and convicted of multiple sex trafficking crimes. With accounts that span over two decades, Kelly was found guilty of using his superstar status to bribe and blackmail women and children for sexual exploitation. Tellingly, prosecutors claimed that it was this “superstar” status that allowed Kelly to use his persona to hide his crimes, and his victims, in plain sight. On a CBS interview with Gayle King in September of 2021, Azriel Clary, who had been one of Kelly’s “girlfriends” for five years from the time she was just 17 years old, admitted that she had been heavily manipulated and abused both sexually and verbally, which she also stated while testifying in court against Kelly. Curry went on to say that she regretted defending, now 54-year-old Kelly, in a prior interview with CBS in 2019. Curry admitted that she had lied to Gayle King regarding the condition she and his other victims were enduring in an attempt to satisfy Kelly and out of fear for her own safety.
Unfortunately, R. Kelly’s case is not the first-or only -time famous artists or other celebrities have used their power to justify and attempt to get away with sexual crimes. One of the most famous of these cases involves financer Jeffrey Epstein, who was arrested in 2019 for his role in facilitating a sex trafficking ring on a private estate in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was also convicted as a child sex offender due to his role in coercing minors into sexually exploitative acts as well. Some of Epstein’s famous acquaintances include former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, who each faced backlash for their connection to Epstein yet were not convicted for committing a crime. Regardless of their level of indictment, cases like these have raised questions regarding why so many celebrities feel that their A-list status increases their ability to disregard the law, and how many may be successful in getting away with various crimes due to their social power and other resources.
The fight against Sex Trafficking & #MuteRKelly
Many current anti-trafficking efforts have had to adapt swiftly amidst Covid-19 protocols and safety measures. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, “governments and civil society organizations conducted in-depth research assessments on the impacts of COVID-19, leveraged technology as a method to address emerging trends, adapted policy approaches, and sought to expand protections for victims.” The anti-trafficking communities’ pivot has been essential in the continuous attempt to rescue and prevent victims from trafficking and the ongoing data assessment and research of current information.
Regarding R. Kelly’s case specifically, viewers of the accusations and trials have taken to the streets in protest and to social media in attempt to “#MuteRKelly” in support of his victims. Although the “MuteRKelly” movement was deemed by his own supporters as an unnecessary use of ‘cancel culture’ tactics, many have stood their ground that Kelly made no excusable offense and should face up to life in prison.
It has been estimated that each year 600,000 to 800,000 men, women, and children are trafficked across international borders. November 18 was established as Anti-trafficking day by the European parliament. This day is used as an opportunity to spread and raise awareness to prevent and combat human trafficking. Human trafficking is a “crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services or to engage in commercial sex acts.” Any person can be a victim of human trafficking. Human trafficking is a “global problem and one of the world’s most shameful crimes.” It affects the lives of millions while also “robbing them of their dignity.” The most known form of trafficking is for the purpose of sexual exploitation, but many other victims are trafficked for the purpose of forced labor, domestic slavery, child begging, or the removal of their organs. Every country is affected by human trafficking, it is important to understand why and how this happens, and the ways to prevent it or recognize the signs.
What is Human Trafficking?
There is no single profile or defining characteristics of a trafficking victim. Victims include men, women, and children from any age and any background. Traffickers are known to often prey on individuals that come from low socioeconomic statuses. They target victims who are poor, vulnerable, in search for a better life, or are living in an unsafe or unstable situation. Trafficking victims are misled by “false promises of love, a good job, or a stable life.” They are forced into scenarios where they are forced to work under terrible conditions with little to no pay. In Birmingham, Alabama, human trafficking is a major issue. The interstate I-20 is the “most heavily trafficked stretch of interstate in the U.S.” The 140-mile road between Birmingham and Atlanta is been known as the ‘sex trafficking superhighway.’ Additionally, the intersection of I-20, I-59, and I-65 makes the city of Birmingham a central exchange for trafficking activity.
Traffickers use different methods and resources to get their victims. Physical force, threats, psychological manipulation are mostly used. Newsome Law points out that there are two general ways traffickers are able to attain victims. First, victims are lured in. Traffickers will go to the lengths to “put up a ruse that their intended victim buys into.” They will make false promises, present desired relationships, large paycheck, or another prize that will seem worthwhile. These prizes are fake, they are just used to gain attraction and attention. In some cases, it’s found that the trafficker will play along to make it believable until they have the victim with them. Secondly, another way victims are recruited is through force and coercion. Some traffickers will use threats of physical harm or actually use physical violence to get their victims. They will use weapons of physical restraints to grab the victim off the street. Tactics of threats, violence, drugging are very commonly used with either method whether they are trying to capture the victim or when they already have the victim.
Who is most at risk?
Human trafficking is important for an array of reasons. First, in the United States, some of the most vulnerable populations include people within marginalized groups. These include “American Indian/Alaska Native communities, LGBTQ+ individuals, individuals with disabilities, undocumented migrants, runaway and homeless youth, temporary guest-workers, and low-income individuals.” These conditions make these communities and individuals more at risk than they already are.
As pointed out, there is not a clear picture of who and what type of person is most at risk. Human trafficking can happen to anyone, but there are some who are more vulnerable than others.
An article by BhamNow suggested several risk factors:
Those involved in the DHR system
Those placed in foster or group homes
Those with limited adult supervision
Those with a history of trauma (including being taken from your own home which is traumatic)
Those with a history of sexual and/or physical abuse
Runaways / homeless youth
Those suffering from substance abuse or with a family history of substance abuse
Young women who learn that their body is something they can use for money
Young men who are taught not to talk about abuse
Queer and trans youth are also vulnerable because they often experience rejection by their families, churches, schools, and communities
What is being done to limit it
With human trafficking being a global problem, many countries and organizations have been developing tactics to prevent and protect victims from being trafficked, while also prosecuting those who traffic. In 2017, the Department of State and Labor and the U.S. Agency for International Development handles a total of 120 international counter-human-trafficking projects among 40 countries. Their projects had three goals: to prevent, protect, and prosecute. They prevented trafficking through public awareness, outreach, education, and advocacy campaigns. They protected and assisted victims “by providing shelters as well as health, psychological, legal, and vocational services. Lastly, they prosecuted human trafficking by providing resources such as training and technical assistance for police, prosecutors, and judges.
Other organizations such as the United Nations (UN) uses similar tactics to prevent, protect, and prosecute when trying to limit human trafficking. The UN started a global project called Start Freedom. This project aims to “engage and raise awareness among young people.” It empowers young people to know the signs of human trafficking and how they can prevent it from happening to them. Both projects have a common conclusion that the best way to avoid being trafficked is through education and knowing the signs.
What can we do?
It is vital to spread awareness and learn about all the risks involving human trafficking and what to do if you are being trafficked or have reason to believe someone is being trafficked.
A would-be employer refuses to give workers a signed contract or asks them to sign a contract in a language they can’t read.
A would-be employer collects fees from a potential worker for the “opportunity” to work in a particular job.
A friend, family member, co-worker, or student is newly showered with gifts or money or otherwise becomes involved in an overwhelming, fast-moving, and asymmetric (e.g., large difference in age or financial status) romantic relationship.
A friend, family member, or student is a frequent runaway and maybe staying with someone who is not their parent or guardian.
A family member, friend, co-worker, or student is developing a relationship that seems too close with someone they know solely on social media.
A family member, friend, or student lives with a parent or guardian and shows signs of abuse.
A family member, friend, or co-worker is offered a job opportunity that seems too good to be true.
A family member, friend, or co-worker is recruited for an opportunity that requires them to move far away, but their recruiter or prospective employer avoids answering their questions or is reluctant to provide detailed information about the job.
Recognizing Labor Trafficking:
Feel pressured by their employer to stay in a job or situation they want to leave
Owe money to an employer or recruiter or are not being paid what they were promised or are owed
Do not have control of their passport or other identity documents
Are living and working in isolated conditions, largely cut off from interaction with others or support systems
Appear to be monitored by another person when talking or interacting with others
Are being threatened by their boss with deportation or other harm
Are working in dangerous conditions without proper safety gear, training, adequate breaks, or other protections
Are living in dangerous, overcrowded, or inhumane conditions provided by an employer
Recognizing Sex Trafficking:
Want to stop participating in commercial sex but feel scared or unable to leave the situation.
Disclose that they were reluctant to engage in commercial sex but that someone pressured them into it.
Live where they work or are transported by guards between home and workplace.
Are children who live with or are dependent on a family member with a substance use problem or who is abusive.
Have a “pimp” or “manager” in the commercial sex industry.
Work in an industry where it may be common to be pressured into performing sex acts for money, such as a strip club, illicit cantina, go-go bar, or illicit massage business.
Have a controlling parent, guardian, romantic partner, or “sponsor” who will not allow them to meet or speak with anyone alone or who monitors their movements, spending, or communications.
It took me a minute to get my thoughts together on exactly what I wanted to say in this piece as a guest blogger. I rewrote this more than once, almost to the point of nausea thinking about whether I should not offend the host and its readers, but then I realized that truth can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow, one drop can create a ripple effect, and this truth is my reality. Human Trafficking thrives off many things including silence. Human Rights is not always a matter of what is given, but rather what is demanded. Race and racism has never been about justice, but rather privilege and the privileged can never fully comprehend what they won’t ever fully experience.
History does matter. The truth is I don’t personally like the term “modern-day slavery”. In fact, I’ve often wonder whose idea it was to coin this phrase in the first place? “Slavery” and particularly in the U.S., was the legal victimization and oppression of an entire population of people based solely on race, that continues to have generational repercussions. Black women and girls were raped, beaten, held captive, violated, taken from their families, sold, mutilated and even murdered. They were forced to bare the children of their perpetrators, teach others how to endure, passed between the family and visitors of their owners, and publicly shamed by their own people. Men were stripped of their human dignity as they stood by and watched helplessly as the women and girls in their lives were violated, impregnated, taken and sold. Even more poignant is the unspoken evil with regard to their own rape and violation. Blacks were forced to endure extreme and hostile conditions of labor in fields and industries without regard to age, gender, physical condition or mental capacity. The laws protected perpetrators, not victims, there were no shelters, services, support, training or promises of restitution. It was called slavery, not modern, just slavery.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the premise behind the term “modern-day slavery” but it is disingenuous at best, to give weight to words in theory, without understanding or recognizing the ramifications of their historical context. I have long said that Human Trafficking is not new, it is slavery revisited, reinvested and renamed, but the only thing modern about it, would be the implication that now it is a problem, because the women and girls largely recognized as victims and survivors have European features. Laws are often changed when those who make them become uncomfortable with the societal ills that begin to impact them personally.
Nelson Mandela, said “The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.
The perception of modern-day slavery When most people hear the word human trafficking, it is almost always in connection to sex trafficking and tends to immediately invoke a strong emotional reaction of horror and disbelief. The visual perception of women and girls, with European features and as very young, being held captive and forced to engage in acts of sexual depravity and violence is unthinkable. People become even more horrified to learn that this is not just happening in some third world country, but right here in the U.S..
News articles, press conferences and information of coordinated law enforcement agency operations regarding human trafficking, dominate the media about white women and girls reported as runaways or missing, being lured through on-line exploitation and rescued at big sporting events, in hotels and from street-based prostitution. According to Natalie Wilson, co-Founder of The Black and Missing Foundation, 64,000 black women, girls and others are currently missing in the U.S., and yet it fails to make the headlines and sometimes even falls below the radar for law enforcement. Even more disturbing, is the reality that “anti-trafficking groups and policy makers continue to ignore the impact that race and racism play in domestic sex trafficking efforts which do not recognize minority youth as victims.”
Documentaries, movies, conferences, printed material and social media awareness campaigns, continue to keep the focus on shelters and organizations that gather substantial support and funding, while making headlines by incorporating survivors who have become the experts leading the charge for change, but rarely, if ever, do they have a hue to their skin. Not that they don’t exist, because history and truth tells us, WE most certainly do. But once again, another crisis thrives off misdirection, false perception and coded language “evidence based practice”, which is fundamentally derived from data of marginalized minority populations that have been hi-jacked by the mainstream, and successfully hood-winked the masked and disengaged. The scriptures says “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”
However, this does not begin to accurately depict the totality of all that is happening. The bias of information reported does not include the stories of men and boys, transgender and gender non-conforming youth and adults who are homeless, missing from Child Welfare Services, have aged-out of foster care systems and who are being exploited or sometimes self-exploiting as a means of survival with no third party involved in the transactions. Prostitution, on-line sexual exploitation, child sexual exploitation, pornography and commercial exploitation are fueled by demand; however, they are also fueled and sustained by societal factors that have been managed in silos, with no regard to systems that are vulnerable for human trafficking schemes. There are vast populations of people, (veterans, formerly incarcerated, the elderly and disabled, single mothers, homeless and minorities) who are vulnerable for human trafficking schemes, that don’t typically capture the headlines, and go unrecognized because human trafficking has been pigeon-hold by what sells (sex) what can be sensationalized (sex and girls), and what is driven largely by emotion (white).
Unfortunately, people are less emotional and horrified when they hear the words labor trafficking often relying on the preconceived notion or misinformation, that these people (who areof foreign descent), and in the United States illegally, have willingly contributed to their own circumstances. The interweaving of issues like immigration, dreamers, confinement camps, and the belief that these people are stealing jobs from Americans and should be thrown out of the country, are heavily threaded in conversations of outrage without empathy or facts. The disregard for victims who are exploited in educational institutions through criminal justice systems, commercial business and major league sports, only scratches the surface of what is not always happening in silence, thereby making all the purported efforts to end human trafficking, splintered and unrealistic.
A global crisis Several years ago more than 200 black girls kidnapped in Nigeria sparked the global campaign “Bring Back Our Girls” individuals, groups and organizations across the racial, cultural and social spectrum galvanized and spoke publicly about what was happening. The viral campaign put black faces front and center in every form of media and print for the first time in the U.S., and bridged the nexus of human trafficking and global human rights. Unfortunately, according to photographer Ami Vitale, photos that she took on behalf of the Alexia Foundation were used and misrepresented as some the images of girls who were not actual victims of Boko Haram, nor from Nigeria. As someone who has been professionally engaged with international countries working on human trafficking and human rights issues for several years, I fully support the global response, but one must take everything into account when being responsive and responsible. Americans can quickly become horrified and outraged at what happens abroad and we can interject ourselves and posture about the money we give for the human rights atrocities. We can feel free to boast of our successes in politics and in a democracy which allows “our people” freedom of speech, choice and opportunity. But when the mirror turns inward, and we see our reflection from where we stand, as citizens of the greatest nation on earth, how dare we spin and spew with audacity, when we can neither reconcile our history of the slavery or even our attempts with modern-day slavery.
Paradigm shift When you peel back the layers of structural inequality and violence, and identify the amount of injustices that contributes to marginalized populations becoming victims, you can recognize the nexus of human trafficking and human rights. Mandela said, “to deny people their human rights, is to challenge their very humanity”. Systems embedded in structural violence only exacerbate opportunities of exploitation for marginalized populations. Organized and non-organized schemes swell out of the vulnerabilities known by the oppressor (trafficker, pimp, exploiter) and experienced by their victims (men, women, children); economic segregation, lack of access to quality education, health and mental health disparities and inequities, food gaps and disparities, cultural adaptation to concentrated poverty, generational trauma and violence, drugs gangs and groups, criminal behavior, discriminatory practices that alienate people and allow increased opportunities for victimization –bullying and much more.
Eleanor Roosevelt believed, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere…”.
These are not new, nor are they beyond our control. But until we are committed to doing something that will make a substantive difference for all people and not just the select few and privileged, nothing will ever change. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
More than ever before, it is critically important for individuals representing the vast diversity of human beings in this country (African Americans, Latino/Hispanic, Native American/Alaskan Native and others) to lead, not just serve organizations. To establish shelters that provide and develop programs through a culturally competent lens for the delivery of trauma informed services and care, that address the specific needs of marginalized victims. It is imperative that we demand seats in greater numbers at the tables where decisions and policies are made with respect to human trafficking legislation, services, support, and funding. The time for one or two just won’t do, especially when the data used to garner attention and make the case for funding, comes from the very population that is being ignored. It is vital that existing shelters not be given a pass because it’s the name everyone recognizes, or it’s the only facility that serves human trafficking victims. We must raise the bar, not lower it or we risk contributing to the re-victimization victims, damaging the reputation of worthy organizations and institutions, and opening the door for predators to prey on unsuspecting individuals and businesses within our communities. People often think someone else has done their due diligence by vetting and verifying organizations and shelters are operating ethically and with integrity, but that may not always be the case. Human Trafficking is all about money, it just depends whose on the receiving end. Robert G. Ingersoll asserts, “nothing discloses real character like the use of power…”
Consider This People are looking for ways to become involved but before one does, I suggest pausing to turn down the background noise of hype and rhetoric that drives funding, volunteerism and emotions. Take the time to become fully knowledge about the issue of human trafficking, “modern-day slavery”, that has had a law for less than 20 years, that even seasoned professionals working in judiciary, law enforcement and victim service providers are still trying to understand how to respond to.
Recognize human trafficking is the new hot topic and cause, and do your own due diligence before you attach your time, talents and finances. Many people may also consider their faith, and although faith based shelters (mostly Christian), are popping up everywhere, you should be clear, that not every victim will be, nor should any person be coerced into religious practice. When a person is coerced to consider faith as a means of freedom and shelter, you have just infringed on their human rights and dignity.
Human trafficking is about the exploitation of the vulnerable and often uninformed. Predators both men and women, don’t have a certain look, and their demeanor is often not what one might expect. The same can be said of some survivors, who claims have been proven to be false or called into question. You must decide. So, before you dive in and dig deep consider this!
Before you volunteer, ask questions What safety protocols do you have in place for staff, volunteers, victims/survivors? Are background checks conducted on ALL staff, volunteers, victims/survivors? What type of security do you have in place? Fencing, locked gates, guards etc.? Is the location of your facility known to the public? What safety measures do you have in place when and if a person leaves your facility to ensure that others do not find out the location? Have you ever had an incident where someone who was not authorized came to your facility? What is your rate of turn-over in staff, volunteers and victims/survivors?
Before you give, dig deep Board members are responsible for ensuring the organization is following all laws, run ethically and with integrity. So, asking for and reviewing a board’s 1099’s (GuideStar Nonprofit database) to see the names of members and have long they have served is information that you would want to know. Frequent and constant turn over should raise concern. In fact, frequent and constant turn over in staff, volunteers and even location should also raise a concern. It could be an indication of instability, financial integrity, compliance failure and even ethical reliability. How much have board members personally invested in the organization? How many victims/survivors are you currently serving, and how many have they served since the program began? How many licensed, qualified and paid, full-time staff do they have working with victims/survivors? This is an important question as to capacity and especially when it comes to transition shelters that house victims/survivors 24-hours, and drop-in shelters who may provide services and support during specified times and day. A facilities failure to have “paid” staff providing on-going professional services and support should send up a red-flag. And while it may seem like an extra step, provide your questions in writing and ask for an authorized representative to provide the information in writing, giving you time to review the answers and ask any potential additional questions later. Remember, no matter how small you give or how often you give, you have the right to know where and how your money is invested and the right to ask additional questions outside of the standard information they provide. Any organization that cannot provide you with what you require, doesn’t deserve what they are requesting. While these do not begin to exhaust the amount of questions and concerns that one should consider, this is a start.
The bridge I started out by talking about my perspective on the bridge between human trafficking, human rights and race in America. By now given the scale and what some might consider diatribe on the complexities and nuances surrounding these three topics, you may have stopped several times, considered clicking off all together, found yourself agreeing with some and disagreeing with other analysis. However, if you’ve made it this far, and I hope that you did, I also hope that you have come to realize that this is not easy, the bridge is broken and damaged in far too many places, it’s has a history of being unsteady and sometimes unreliable, it’s weak and in need of repair, but it’s what we have, until we come together to build a new one. You have now done what many of us who work on issues that impact social consciousness do every day, keep going. When it’s hard, heavy and sometimes unbearable, when the lie takes our breath away and the truth rips at our heart, when darkness gives more to our movements, than light gives to our moments. When we are crippled with fear, and yet continue to crawl, because we are survivors not merely by circumstance, but most assuredly by choice. We are destined to fight for victims, demand human dignity for survivors and seek a measure of justice where injustice reigns most supreme. We cross the spectrum of race, culture and ethnicity, we ask not for favors, but for the opportunity to bring every person’s reality into focus, so that they may become free. This is the bridge and I’m doing my part to help others cross it.
“Invest wisely in the matters of change!” (literally and figuratively) – Sunny Slaughter
Sunnetta “Sunny” Slaughter is the CEO/Principal consultant for Sunny Slaughter Consulting, LLC . Slaughter is subject matter expertise on human trafficking and intersecting crimes for a national and international clientele and serves as a policy strategist, facilitator, law enforcement instructor, expert, TEDx speaker and subject matter expert, across a broad spectrum of human rights, social justice and civil rights issues.
UAB is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer committed to fostering a diverse, equitable and family-friendly environment in which all faculty and staff can excel and achieve work/life balance irrespective of race, national origin, age, genetic or family medical history, gender, faith, gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation. UAB also encourages applications from individuals with disabilities and veterans.