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Human trafficking occurs all over the world.  Most of us have heard of it but may not know how it really affects its victims and the rest of us.  Many might think of it as something that only happens in other countries, but it happens in the U.S. as well.  As you travel around the country, you will notice signs posted about reporting human trafficking, as it continues to be a big issue.

Human smuggling and human trafficking are a bit different but can overlap.  Smuggling is taking someone across a border with their consent, while trafficking does not necessarily involve being moved for purposes of immigration.  Smuggling can turn into trafficking if there is coercion to do commercial sex work, or any type of labor, as payment for the smuggling.  Many times, we tend to think of trafficking as something that occurs only among poor people trying to escape horrendous living conditions, but it can occur among people of all genders, races, and classes.

Remember Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell?  This is a good example of people who were very wealthy and powerful that were found guilty of coercing underage women into sex acts.  Victims of trafficking can be found working in agriculture, hotels, factories, restaurants, and massage parlors – many victims are out in the open while being a well-kept secret at the same time.

There are estimated to be more than 24.9 million people, adults, and children, subjected to human trafficking around the world, including in the United States.  Traffickers often take advantage of instability caused by natural disasters, conflict, or a pandemic to exploit others.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, traffickers are continuing to perpetrate the crime, finding ways to innovate and capitalize on the chaos.

Trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar global industry often headed by organized crime syndicates.  Since it is an underground operation, none of the people making these enormous profits are paying taxes, which leaves the rest of us to pick up the bill on what they’re not contributing.  Children who have been spending huge amounts of time on the internet because of the pandemic are at greater risk for being lured into a trafficking situation, especially if they perceive it as something innocent that could help their families have more money.  Young people can often be enticed by the promise of a romantic relationship that will lead them to live happily ever after.  But it doesn’t usually work that way.

Why don’t victims report what’s happening?  As in any abusive situation, the abuser’s main goal is to keep control over the victim.  They do that with threats of violence against the victim directly or against their families, or often threaten reporting an undocumented person so that they will be deported.  If the victim had any documents with them, they have probably been taken away by the trafficker, so it would be very difficult to get any help or return to the person’s home country without some form of identification.

How would you know if someone was a victim?  The Department of Homeland Security gives the following indicators on their Blue Campaign website (www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign).  This campaign is a public awareness effort to help people see the signs of trafficking and encourage folks to help if they suspect that someone is being trafficked.  The following are some indicators to look for in identifying a possible case of human trafficking.

Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship?  Has a child stopped attending school?  Has there been a sudden or dramatic change in behavior?  Is a juvenile engaged in commercial sex acts?  Is the person disoriented or confused or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?  Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?  Is the person fearful, submissive, or timid?  Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep, or medical care?  Is the person in the company of someone to whom he or she defers to or who seems to be in control?  Does the person appear to be coached on what to say or lack personal possessions?  Does the person have freedom of movement, or are there unreasonable security measures?

Not all these things occur in every situation, and there may be other things not mentioned that might make you suspect, so keep your eyes and ears open and follow your gut if something doesn’t feel right.  Want to help?  There is a non-profit group called Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) that provides training specifically to truckers on how to identify and deal with what might be a trafficking situation.  You can call (888) 373-7888 or visit www.truckersagainsttrafficking.org now.  You can also text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733).

A trafficking victim is unlikely to have a cell phone to make such contacts – and that’s where the rest of us come in.  An undocumented victim might not want you to make a call on their behalf for fear of deportation, however, there are laws and types of visas that protect the person from deportation in many of these circumstances.  You can download a card from the DHS website (www.dhs.gov) to carry with you (it comes in 23 languages).  As part of their “If You See Something Say Something” campaign, this card helps you recognize a possible case of trafficking and gives you the number to report it.

Remember that any one of us could fall prey to a human trafficker.  You don’t have to be absolutely certain that modern day slavery is what’s happening, you just need to be suspicious.  Great if it turns out that you are wrong.  All the better if it turns out you saved someone’s life by doing the right thing.  And doing the right thing is great for your health!

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