Human trafficking. It’s been called “modern-day slavery” and a “silent epidemic.” It affects tens of millions every year and yet remains largely in the shadows – even within the United States.
Much remains to be done in fighting the scourge of human trafficking, say experts and survivors. And that starts with a better understanding of what trafficking really looks like.
But while initiatives based on awareness, prevention and recovery are taking place at different levels throughout the country, a key part of efforts to combat the practice may be at risk.
“The way you’re thinking about trafficking isn’t the reality,” said Tina Frundt, a survivor of human trafficking and founder of Courtney’s House, a survivor-run program offering help and support to survivors in the Washington D.C. area.
Frundt spoke at a conference last summer on human trafficking. Held at The Catholic University of America the event was entitled, “Answering Pope Francis’s Call: An American Catholic Response to Modern-Day Slavery.”
Human trafficking takes various forms: Victims are recruited, transported, or harbored under coercion, threats or use of force. They are exploited through forced labor, sexual coercion or removal of organs.
Globally, the International Labor Organization estimates that over 20 million people – men, women, and children – are currently victims of human trafficking: trapped in jobs or services they were deceived or forced into joining and which they cannot leave freely.
According to the U.S. Department of State, between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year, while the Department of Justice estimates that more than 17,000 people are trafficked into the United States itself.
The Department of Justice also has identified 83 percent of victims in confirmed sex trafficking incidents as U.S. citizens. Meanwhile, 67 percent of labor trafficking victims, the department says, are undocumented immigrants, with an additional 28 percent consisting of documented immigrants.
Frundt explained that many U.S. victims of sex trafficking do not fit the stereotypes many associate with vulnerable populations, but instead come from a wide variety of racial and economic backgrounds.
“We think this only affects the people who are poor,” she said, but in reality, the wealthy are also targeted.
And it is not just girls who are victims of trafficking, but boys as well, she said, adding that members of all ethnicities are targeted for exploitation.
Victims do tend to have one trait in common: youth. “It’s easy to manipulate kids,” Frundt said, pointing to the average age of entry into sex trafficking between 11 and 14.
“Trafficking sounds like this: ‘I just met him in my neighborhood’,” she said. Many times, parents are not even aware that their child has met a trafficker, because “kids only tell you things when it gets real bad.”
“You have to think of pimps as marketers,” Frundt stressed. “They’re so smart they convinced the world they didn’t exist.” Oftentimes, they access to young people by gaining their trust, embedding fears into their target, and generally staying away from initiating sexual advances, in order to avoid suspicion from adults.
The strategic actions of pimps and handlers are a key reason for the misunderstandings about who the victims of trafficking are, she said. Many expectations in popular culture are so different from the reality of trafficking, that “when a survivor comes to you and says this happened to them, you don’t believe them.”
These misconceptions about human trafficking also exist when it comes to labor trafficking, said Gerardo Reyes Chavez, leader and organizer for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization representing tomato farmers in south Florida. “There’s many connections that we forget exist.”
One observation that may surprise people: for many victims of labor trafficking, exploitation initially resembles common working practices for wage laborers, such as wage retention. “Slavery is nothing more than the continuation of the poor working conditions that we allow to continue,” Reyes Chaves said.
These poor working conditions “devalue our humanity” for all workers who are mistreated, he said, but also make recognizing more grievous practices – such as the chaining and imprisonment of workers, or violence against them – much more difficult to detect.
“Slavery doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Many times we live in denial.”
Today, many common food items, like lettuce and tomatoes, are harvested by trafficked workers, Reyes Chaves said, because companies are allowed to disregard whether all their workers are there of their own free will. The market, in this case, is a two-edged sword, that “is helping to create these problems” but can also be used as part of the solution.
The key to achieving that solution? Companies and consumers who are willing to stand up and put pressure on the processes in place.
“We need to recognize that we are connected,” he said. “We’re not talking about someone who’s that far away from us.”
Amy O’Neill Richard, senior advisor to the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, explained that the federal government and non-profits also have a role to play in stopping human trafficking both at home and abroad.
Federal government officials work to not only prosecute violators of human trafficking laws, but also protect victims and prevent trafficking from happening in the first place, through a variety of government initiatives and partnerships – including with Catholic charities and organizations.
Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are two of the prominent Catholic groups that have partnered with the State Department in its anti-trafficking work. With their broad reach and large number of people on the ground in various areas, the religious groups have been hailed as an important partner in the fight against trafficking.
Such partnerships could soon be at risk, though.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year announced that groups seeking anti-trafficking partnership grants must offer abortion counseling or else ensure that such counseling is provided by a third party.
The policy shift quietly expands on an earlier policy change from 2011. That change said that “strong preference” for grants would be given to organizations offering referrals for the “full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.”
That year, the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services failed to win a grant renewal, after years of being a grant recipient to provide food, housing, medical services and other aid to trafficking victims in more than 44 states.
Consistently given excellent ratings, the U.S. bishops’ group even met criteria to be given special preference, based on its experience and ability to serve underserved populations in a variety of locations, including those with high incidences of trafficking.
However, the group does not offer abortions or contraception. After the change in instructions, it did not win the grant renewal, which was instead given to two other groups that “scored so low they did not make the cutoff when evaluated by an independent review board,” according to a U.S. bishops’ spokesperson.