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It’s a shocking fact to contemplate in the 21st century: There are more people in slavery worldwide today than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
That point comes from The Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization with offices in Washington and Newark. It is devoted to strengthening the framework of laws to better support survivors and prosecute traffickers, and to providing victims safe passage to freedom and normal lives.
Trafficking networks have been expert at evading laws here and abroad. Last week, the state announced arrests in a human trafficking and diamond smuggling operation that stretched from Manhattan and Atlantic City to Las Vegas and beyond. Women were ensnared in a prostitution ring they could not escape. State Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said the victims were “degraded, threatened and isolated from any support in their lives.” It is the modus operandi of trafficking.
Polaris rates the states on the statutes they have in place to effectively prevent and prosecute human trafficking. New Jersey rates 6 out of 12 possible points — in the middle of the pack — and a new bill is pending in the Legislature. The state has sex and labor trafficking laws and penalties, including asset forfeiture, but still needs to allow victims to have removed or “vacated” convictions that occurred as a result of being trafficked, among other things. Law enforcement officials, in many cases, mistake trafficking victims for criminals who have been willing accomplices. More training is also needed to help police recognize a trafficking victim.
Congress last week passed a bill reauthorizing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act as an amendment to the Violence Against Women Act. The trafficking reauthorization allocates $130 million to prosecute traffickers and provide recovery assistance to victims, including housing and legal services.
Star-Ledger editorial writer Linda Ocasio spoke with Mary Ellison, director of policy for Polaris Project, about what we know and don’t know about human trafficking.
What do people misunderstand about human trafficking?
The biggest misunderstanding is that it only happens somewhere else, not on U.S. soil. Not true. Modern-day slavery happens right here, in the most free and democratic country in the world. People think victims are complicit in their own exploitation. With sex trafficking, people think that “they’re just prostitutes.”
All sex trafficking victims have been forced, defrauded or coerced. A child cannot consent to his own sexual exploitation. With foreign nationals, people think they’re essentially illegal immigrants who have been smuggled in because they wanted to be. That’s not the case. They have been forced against their will to work here, and that is clearly a violation of U.S. and international law.
Many people think mostly of sex crimes when they hear about trafficking.
We have found all the calls to our hotline were evenly divided between sex trafficking and labor exploitation or trafficking, people forced to labor against their will for little or no pay.
The seeds of what becomes trafficking in labor can be seen in violations of health and safety laws, wage and hour violations, and discrimination — factors that ripen into a labor trafficking situation.
In what kinds of jobs do you see labor trafficking?
We see it in farm work, construction, restaurants and other jobs in the hospitality industry. Peddling or begging rings especially exploit youth. Most calls we get in the labor trafficking arena are in domestic servitude. Women are forced to work cleaning homes, taking care of children. They’re completely unseen, isolated.
There was a case in upstate New York of a wealthy family with a large mansion who for five years enslaved a woman for something like 85 cents an hour. Her family member found our national hotline number, and we got law enforcement involved and they freed her. Now the employers are being prosecuted.
Many people wonder: Why don’t they just walk away?
The reason they don’t is they are severely traumatized, brainwashed by traffickers into thinking they have no dignity. They are told they will be beaten up, killed or their family harmed. They are completely at the mercy of their captor. These are not physical chains, but chains of the mind. Imagine being tortured and trying to leave that situation. They’re similar to torture survivors.
How can we recognize when someone has been trafficked? What are the signs?
There are several signs: Is there someone apparently controlled by someone else? Do they have control over their own money or identification documents? Are restaurant workers not allowed to leave the premises, sleeping in the back room of the restaurant? They could be working against their will. Can you see high security measures on a building where someone lives or works? Things like opaque windows, boarded-up windows, barbed wire or security cameras. Of course, any time you see a child in prostitution, working on the streets or posted online for sale, that is an immediate red flag.
Other signs: If it seems a person is not free to come and go, working excessively long hours, and seems anxious and tense, avoiding eye contact, and not willing to talk normally. Often domestic servants have their documents taken, so they have no passport or ID, and often they are not in touch with their families back home. They are socially isolated.
Not everyone can be expert on who the victims are, but sometimes it comes down to using your gut: “I have a bad feeling this person is in a human-trafficking situation.” Call the hotline and let us walk you through it. We have resources to follow up.
How widespread is trafficking?
The International Labor Organization estimates 20.9 million victims globally, with hundreds of thousands here in the United States.
Since we began operating the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline in 2007, we’ve identified more than 8,000 victims in the U.S., based on almost 70,000 calls we’ve received. We believe this is just a fraction of the people victimized. Last year, we received reports of human trafficking in every state in the U.S. We’re actively working to increase awareness of the hotline number around the country and online so that more people know there is a place to call to get help and information.
We still have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg when it comes to victims in the United States. We want to err on the side of “I think this person might be in trouble,” and give people the safety net they need.
How is law enforcement trained to recognize victims?
Training of police and social service agencies is going on around the country. We partner with groups that provide training and we provide materials ourselves. There is no national training program because each state has different laws on trafficking.
Why aren’t we all on the same page?
There’s only been 10 years of development of these laws on the state level. The American Bar Association asked the uniform law commission to come up with a uniform state statute on trafficking, and that is expected to come out this year.
Without uniformity it’s hard to deter traffickers. If punishment in one state is five years and elsewhere it’s 10, they might go to the state with five years. Also, there’s a lack of consistency in protecting victims. One state might have services for victims but another state might not have anything.
Which states have been ahead on this?
Washington and Texas were the first to have anti-trafficking laws, in 2003, followed by Missouri and Florida. Minnesota and Massachusetts use the law to prosecute, so we have more cases coming out of those states.
The biggest challenge over the next decade will be all about using the laws, not just on paper, but holding traffickers accountable.
Traffickers are very adaptable, sadly, and know how to evade detection. They know how to move their product, and their product is human beings. They know how to shelter their revenue. Oftentimes they are putting profits into luxury vehicles, mansions, property or in the name of someone else, mom or grandma. We’ve had cases where lawyers sued in a civil action and recovered thousands of dollars that go to victims, if an asset forfeiture law is in place. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, human traffickers make $32 billion a year, but that number is probably low. It’s up there with arms and drug trafficking.
Is there one country where traffickers come from?
No. Traffickers come from every nationality, gender. Some traffickers are women. We’ve seen situations in the U.S. where an aunt, mom or grandmother has trafficked a daughter, granddaughter or niece, for both sex and labor.
Anytime you have a natural disaster, war or internal conflict, all contribute to trafficking. Haiti had an earthquake a couple of years ago and that created vulnerability. People were living on the street. India is a major concern for both sex and labor trafficking. We do get a lot of calls about Mexico, the Philippines, China, India and Thailand. But we’ve also had calls involving 54 other nationalities. And of course, traffickers can be U.S. citizens as well.
You would think meeting with victims would make you sadder, but I am constantly amazed at the resilience of human trafficking survivors. They’ve experienced the most evil humans are capable of, but because of their resilience, they’re able to move on and they want to help others. That is so hopeful. If we can help people get out of their enslavement, there is hope.
By the numbers
The numbers bear out how big a problem human trafficking is worldwide. Polaris compiled these statistics from 2007 government data and nonprofit research. Experts say the situation is likely worse today.
20.9 million – People in modern day slavery across the world.
2 million – Children exploited by the global commercial sex trade, every year.
800,000 – People trafficked across international borders every year.
$32 billion – Total yearly profits generated by the human trafficking industry.
Sources: Polaris, U.S. State Department, International Labour Organization
Keep the conversation going at njvoices.com.