Human Trafficking: Yes, in Your Backyard

Human trafficking activity happens everywhere.

Posted Jan 13, 2014

Not in My Backyard

When I spoke about human trafficking recently at a service club meeting in an upscale community, a woman in the front row piped up: “We are lucky we don’t have that kind of thing happening around here.” “You don’t?” I ask. “How do you know?” She explained that her community was clean, safe, and virtually crime free. Sadly, appearances can be deceiving.

Selling sex for money is business that is not conducted in the middle of a shopping mall. Or on the main city street—although it may be taking place as close as one street away, as we saw in the last column with the Red Light District in Pohang, South Korea.

In addition to the imperceptible nature of the crime, another reason people honestly don’t believe human trafficking occurs in their own backyards is because they don’t know what it looks like. The term “human trafficking” evokes a visceral reaction. It conjures up disturbing images of women and girls in chains, deprived of nutrition, care, and liberty.

In reality, however, the crime of human trafficking doesn’t always involve girls bound together in visible chains, as often seen in Hollywood dramatizations and documentaries. While such atrocities certainly do occur, the more commonly encountered human trafficking victims are bound by invisible chains. They are controlled through physical, psychological, and emotional harm.

Invisible Chains

These chains are only invisible if you know what to look for—or, like many people, don’t want to look for. We all want to believe we live in a nice, safe neighborhood. A neighborhood where we can feel safe walking at night or letting our children play outside without worrying they are in danger. But too often, human trafficking victims are hiding in plain sight.

In my last column I shared the details of teaching Human Trafficking at Handong International Law School and accompanying the Christian law students to minister to the sex workers in the Red Light District, right next to the police station and one street away from a crowded McDonald’s. The “not in my backyard” syndrome was in play in Pohang, as it is everywhere else in the world, evidenced by the fact that many students and faculty at the university didn’t even know their city had a red light district, much less knew where it was. During the day, they wouldn’t have seen it because the storefronts open at night.

The women on display in Pohang weren’t in handcuffs. They didn’t have visible bruises. They didn’t appear to be malnourished. So does that mean they are choosing to sell their bodies for money? The presence of “enforcers” in the ominous black cars provides strong evidence these girls are not independent contractors choosing to sell themselves for sex. This discussion ties right into the boundaries of Human Trafficking law, which distinguishes trafficking from prostitution by requiring elements of force, fraud, or coercion.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines "severe forms of trafficking in persons'' as “(A) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or (B) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

Epidemic of Global Proportions

“Human trafficking endangers the lives of millions of people around the world, and it is a crime that knows no borders,” declared President Obama in his Presidential Proclamation – National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, 2012. “Despite our successes, thousands of individuals living in the United States and still more abroad suffer in silence under the intolerable yoke of modern slavery.”

And, according to the California Against Slavery organization, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego are 3 of the 10 worst child sex trafficking areas in the United States.

• Human trafficking generates $9.5 billion yearly in the United States. (United Nations)

• Approximately 300,000 children are at risk of being prostituted in the United States. (U.S. Department of Justice)

• The average age of entry into prostitution for a child victim in the United States is 13-14 years old. (U.S. Department of Justice)

• A pimp can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and the average pimp has 4 to 6 girls. (U.S. Justice Department, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)

• The average victim may be forced to have sex up to 20-48 times a day. (Polaris Project)

• Fewer than 100 beds are available in the United States for underage victims. (Health and Human Services)

• The Department Of Justice has identified the top twenty human trafficking jurisdictions in the country: Houston
• El Paso
• Los Angeles
• Atlanta
• Chicago
• Charlotte
• Miami
• Las Vegas
• New York
• Long Island
• New Orleans
• Washington, D.C.
• Philadelphia
• Phoenix
• Richmond
• San Diego• San Francisco
• St Louis
• Seattle
• Tampa (Department of Justice)

• One in three teens on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. (National Runaway Hotline)

Clearly, this is a crime that does happen in backyards all over the world. In the next column we will continue to explore this topic during Human Trafficking month in order to empower communities to know what to look for and what to do about what they see.