Pretend you’re a kid again. Your parents angered you, and you come up with this brilliant plan: run away. You stuff your Lego Batman suitcase with your favorite clothes and toys. You sneak out of the house and get on the sidewalk. It’s PERFECT until—Wait. Where will you go? Seriously? Where will you sleep tonight? Where will you eat? How will you get money for things you need? How will you get to school, and see your friends, and, and—DO things? That’s right, you won’t. Or, more accurately, you can’t. So you walk your tiny butt home, stamp inside the house, grumble a moody “sorry” to your ‘rents, and sulk in your room until everything is great again an hour later.
But what if you didn’t go home? What if you didn’t have such a wonderful family to go back to? What if your living situation was so bad that you would rather take a chance out in the cold, hard world at the age of twelve rather than spend one more minute next to your abusive father and heroin-addicted mother? I’ll tell you what you would do: you would leave, and never look back.
Problem is, you’re young. Worse, you’re naïve. You still believe people are good, and that if someone offers you a place to stay that night while you’re lying on a bench in a chilly park at night that they’re doing you a favor out of the goodness of their heart. And you would think wrong, because they’ve got you now. You are theirs now. And it happened when you got into the backseat of their car.
Don’t feel bad that you got manipulated. You got taken advantage of-- that is how one in five runaways become victims of human trafficking.
So, what is Human Trafficking?
The United Nations’ Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines human trafficking as the following:
“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”
Keep in mind that according to US law, “any minor under the age of 18 involved in commercial sex is considered a victim of human trafficking, regardless of the presence of force, fraud, or coercion” (National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC)).
What are the signs of human trafficking?
There are too many to count, and there is no exhaustive list, but the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHRTC) breaks it down pretty well. One key fact to remember is that trafficking does not necessarily have an element of physical force or restraint. Psychological forces are just as powerful and less apparent (National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC)).
Human trafficking is vastly underreported and also kept underground as to avoid detection, leading to confusion about an accurate prevalence. However, some estimates suggest there are hundreds of thousands of people being trafficked in the US every day (Polaris Project). Global estimates of human trafficking victims reach 20.9 M people, approximately three out of every thousand people worldwide. Out of these, approximately 4.5M people—roughly twenty-two percent—are sexually exploited (International Labour Organization (ILO)).
Who is most at risk of being human trafficked?
Anyone is at risk. In the U.S., “…victims can be men, women, adults, children, foreign nationals, and U.S. citizens…. [and] have been identified in cities, suburbs, and rural areas in all 50 states, and in Washington, D.C.” (National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC)). Human trafficking victims can be of all ages, races, gender, and nationality and have varying socioeconomic status, education levels, and be documented or undocumented citizens. However, displaced people, members of minority groups (including LGBTQ individuals), anyone with low socioeconomic status, or victims and survivors of domestic abuse are more likely to be trafficked because traffickers can capitalize on these unmet needs and use these vulnerabilities as an avenue through which they can exploit the victims. Women are disproportionately affected in sexual exploitation in the private economy compared to men, and yet men are disproportionately affected in labor exploitation compared to women (Human Trafficking Center (HTC)).
Runaway and homeless youth are particularly at risk, since they are often in unfamiliar environments and have no one to care for them and no one will notice if they are missing (National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC)). Twenty-five percent (most likely more) of all labor and sex trafficking involves children (Human Trafficking Center (HTC)). In 2015 alone, one in five runaway children were likely being sex trafficked in the United States, an increase from the one in six runaway children in 2014. Scarier still, seventy-four percent of those runaways were in the care of social services or foster care at the time of their disappearance (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children). Sadly, “the average age of a person that is targeted and commercially sexually exploited is between 12 and 14 years old” (Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force).
I thought this was a “third world country” problem?
First of all, “third world country” is an outdated term and incredibly ignorant. There are “developed” and “developing” countries and human trafficking can happen anywhere. To quote the Department of Homeland Security, “Human trafficking exists in every country, including the United States. It exists nationwide—in cities, suburbs, and rural towns—and possibly in your own community.” Maryland, for instance, is thought of as a “goldmine” for human trafficking, as identified by victims and traffickers alike. This is for a few reasons. First, I-95 easily connects New York, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., and Maryland serves as a central location that acts dually as a pass-through state and destination. Second, due to I-95’s presence, it is inevitable that “numerous rest stops, truck stops, and bus stations” will serve as easy places for women to be sexually exploited, which according to the NHTRC, seventy percent of all US human trafficking incidents occur in these areas (Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force).
Okay, but this is only foreigners being trafficked…right?
Wrong. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), most trafficking happens right at home—the most prevalent types of human trafficking are actually intraregional and domestic (Human Trafficking Center (HTC)).
Oh. So human trafficking is really hidden because this is an underground crime operation.
Not entirely. While human trafficking can occur through underground channels such as street-based prostitution and residential brothels, it is very likely to happen in plain sight, at legal establishments like restaurants, hotels, and manufacturing plants (National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC)).
This is horrible. Why does it still happen?
First, money. Human trafficking is a very profitable, illegal activity and the people involved crave it. How profitable? The ILO estimates the global industry’s net worth to be approximately $150B USD, two-thirds ($99B USD) of which can be attributed to sexual exploitation alone (International Labour Organization). Sex sells. Literally. Second, human trafficking is a low-risk business venture for many traffickers. Even though there are laws in place to prosecute and stop them, many consider the potential profit gains to be worth the risk of detection and possible arrest. However, other major contributing factors to the thriving human trafficking industry are the following: “lack of government and law enforcement training, low community awareness, ineffective or unused laws, lack of law enforcement investigation, scarce resources for victim recovery services, and social blaming of victims” (National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC)).
What can I do to help?
1.Don’t be part of the problem. Educate yourself.
As I mentioned earlier, low community awareness contributes to making human trafficking a low-risk business venture for many traffickers. Well, just because we are JHU students does not mean we are not part of the Baltimore community. You are the community. So you’re already doing something right now by reading this article. Yes, right now. I challenge you to continue your education. First, with Netflix. Yes, I said Netflix. Watch the two documentaries Very Young Girls and Tricked. They’re both about an hour and a half long! Enjoy!
2. Get involved.
A little bit about me, the author of this article:
I joined Safe House of Hope (SHOH)—a Christian anti-human trafficking non-profit located in Curtis Bay, MD—as a Street Outreach Volunteer a little over a year and a half ago. As a volunteer, I’d go out in teams of 4 or 5 people and we would give candy, condoms, and bracelets with the Safe House of Hope hotline number on the inside so the ladies’ pimps wouldn’t see. I could only handle a few trips before I eventually broke down one night after I met a girl who was me. She was nineteen at the time, black, beautiful, bubbly, and fun to talk to all in that thirty seconds I had with her. And she haunted me. Because we had to drive away (before her annoyed pimp came up and asked her or us why she was wasting time not making money). We had to drive away and just, just… leave her there. Out on the cold, dark street. To be sexually exploited by several men before the night was over. I know what our job was and I know we had to leave, but it still felt wrong. I still felt like I wanted to do more.
That’s when I found out Safe House of Hope had a Drop-In Center where women could get their laundry done, eat some food, talk to people (or not at all), and just relax without anyone yelling or hitting them. It’s a safe space, and a popular one too. I found out that life skills classes and other activities like yoga and a Reproductive Health Specialist on Thursdays were regular before, when there were more volunteers. For various reasons, there were hardly any volunteers anymore so these services just… stopped. I couldn’t help with that, I thought, so I went back to campus to see if there was something I could do to help human trafficking victims that was, well, easier. There wasn’t. And while I was looking for on-campus activities involving human trafficking service, I also realized there were no student groups involving human trafficking. Like, zilch. Zip. Nada. So I checked… the JHSOM? Nope. The JHSPH? Not that one either. UM? No. Towson? Morgan State? University of Baltimore? No! None of these universities had a student group that focused on human trafficking. Human rights? Sure. However, through this article, I hope you have realized how complex and still undetermined a lot of topics surrounding human trafficking are. This article hasn’t even skimmed the surface of the intricacies of this issue. So why wasn’t there one student group that focused on human trafficking alone? I don’t know. So I started one.
Breaking Chains, the coolest JHU student group. Ever.
Okay so maybe not yet. It’s new, but Breaking Chains is a student-led anti-human trafficking organization whose mission is to aid survivors of human trafficking in pursuing their life goals. Breaking Chains seeks to break some of the barriers survivors may face in their pursuit of happiness through basic life skills classes needed to successfully live in and contribute to society in a meaningful, dignified way. We serve the wonderful clients of Safe House of Hope (naturally).
Our Upcoming Events
We will also be holding awareness events on campus because so many people—seriously so many people—at JHU that I’ve talked to about human trafficking mentioned those three myths I talked about earlier in this article. That’s when I realized most people don’t know anything about human trafficking, and campus is a great place to raise awareness.
If any of this was mildly interesting to you, join! Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, email address, phone number, year, and whether or not you have a valid driver’s license. A driver’s license isn’t required to join, but since we will be using HopVans to visit SHOH, we need drivers! And we need ‘em certified. So don’t be shy!
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