Human Trafficking: Saving One Life at a Time

Human Trafficking: Saving One Life at a Time

By Deborah M. Figart, Professor of Economics and Education, and Brittany Benedetti, Stockton Honors Student

Anguish. Abjection. Agony. These are only a few of the burdens of millions of men, women, and children who are exploited across the globe due to human trafficking. At this very moment, human beings are being abused and sold into sex slavery for monetary gain. Across the globe. And close to home.

The 2014 Global Slavery Index estimates that 38.5 million persons are enslaved each year. Even in the United States, across every state. The U.S. contains a plethora of seaports, airports, and major highways that make it easier to traffic people throughout the country. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Child Exploitation Task Force recounts that “It’s sad, but true: here in this country, people are being bought, sold, and smuggled like modern-day slaves.” Locally, the FBI takes about 30-to-50 children off the streets of Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland counties each year. Like Ashley Boyer.

One cannot avoid being moved by Ashley’s story. The then 17-year old senior from Ocean City High school became a victim of human trafficking. Her tale is relayed eloquently by Linda Cohen, staff writer for the Press of Atlantic City. Ashley was wooed to a potential meeting with a music producer. Instead of taking her to a music studio, a man she refers to as “the Monster” entrapped her into sex slavery for three years by threatening her and her family. Ashley’s story, as is turns out, is not unusual.

Modern-day slavery can victimize anyone regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status. Yet traffickers typically prey on young men, women, and children who are living in or near the poverty line. Recruitment for sex trafficking is far more prevalent that labor trafficking according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the U.S. In Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour, the International Labour Organization reports that sexual exploitation worldwide accounts for approximately two-thirds of the estimated $32 billion of global annual profit from sex slavery and child pornography.

This multi-billion dollar industry operates largely in an underground economy. Traffickers, otherwise known as “pimps” use different manipulative tactics to force women (and girls and boys), including physical violence, rape, sexual assault, and in some cases will administer illegal drugs to prohibit a victim from moving and escaping. It can be as easy as being forced into a van on a street corner while waiting for a bus. Or sweeping through hangouts for homeless teenagers. Economic inequality and social immobility within societies gives traffickers leverage to recruit their victims. Many will lure persons with false promises of a better quality of life, a decent-paying job, or other aspirations.

The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was first signed in 2000, and reauthorized and refunded in 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2013. Multiple government agencies (Health and Human Services, FBI, Department of State, and Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement) all have roles to play to pursue and prosecute traffickers. Non-profit organizations also provide services to victims. Unfortunately, the number of sex trafficking incidents has been on the rise since 2008, as documented by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The Hustle, a new study released by the Urban Institute sheds light on how much money is generated by the underground commercial sex economy in American cities. According to the Urban Institute, “Knowing the size of the economy is the critical first step for enabling law enforcement, the judicial system, and policymakers to make informed choices about how to fight the harm that happens within these black markets.” The research provides the first rigorous estimates (2007) for the revenue generated in the underground commercial sex economies of Atlanta ($290 million), Miami ($235 million), Seattle ($112 million), Washington, DC ($103 million), Dallas ($98.8 million), San Diego ($96.8 million), and Denver ($39.9 million).

Becoming trapped in modern-day slavery is harmful to the victim’s physical, emotional, social, financial, and career well-being. Many are scarred for life. Some commit suicide. Ashley Boyer was lucky; she got out, escaping with her life. But she lost her youth and is still healing. As in the case of homeland security, one step we can all make to combat trafficking is: “Is you see something, say something.” Report any tips to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, operated by the Polaris Project. From December 7, 2007, through December 31, 2012, the Center answered 65,557 calls, 1,735 online tip forms, and 5,251 emails, totaling more than 72,000 interactions. Maybe your call can help get someone back home for the holidays or off the streets in a cold winter.