CIANA Explains: Human Trafficking, the Modern-Day Slavery Epidemic

January was Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month. While many people are reluctant to admit that slavery still exists in the present day, human trafficking, a modern form of slavery, takes place here in the United States, often right under our noses. Approximately between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked in the U.S. every year.

Human trafficking can be split into two major forms: labor and sex trafficking. Labor trafficking is when people are forced to work in sometimes life-threatening conditions without pay. Sex trafficking is essentially forced prostitution. A large portion of sex workers in the U.S. do not enter the trade willingly, but rather are victims of trafficking.

However, there are over 25 distinct forms of trafficking, each one having its own set of characteristics and victims.

Who Gets Trafficked?

Traffickers look to vulnerable populations, women and children in particular, with little money, no language skills, and lots of fear. These factors put immigrants and refugees at a higher likelihood of being trafficked, and inhibit their ability to fight back, as well as their willingness to reach out for help.

Syrian refugees, for instance, are often the poorest demographic in many countries, which puts them at a high risk of being picked up by traffickers.

Refugee children are especially at risk; it is estimated that about 10,000 unaccompanied minors go missing on the way there from their countries of origin, likely due to trafficking.

Many trafficking victims in the U.S. are immigrant women. Some are smuggled into the U.S. from parts of Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe, while others are forced into the trade upon arriving. They’re often isolated and physically kept removed from the outside world, making escape or rescue a near impossibility.

Why Does Trafficking Take Place?

It is a common myth that traffickers always kidnap or force their victims into trafficking. Throughout Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Americas, traffickers manipulate their victims, threatening to harm their families if they refuse to come with them.

In other cases, victims are lured by the promise of stable employment, housing, money, and even love; victims might begin dating someone who then turns out to be a trafficker. The archetypal teenage runaway often falls prey to this particular narrative.

Some victims are even sold by their families, who may need the money, might feel threatened if they do not do so, or simply do not value the lives of certain relatives.

What Does Trafficking Look Like?

While trafficking is often thought to take place only in basements of run-down homes in the poor neighborhoods, this is not necessarily the reality for everyone. In large urban areas such as New York, victims work mainstream jobs and interact with ordinary people every day.

Flushing, Queens, an area with a high concentration of Chinese and Korean individuals, has become the epicenter for massage parlor trafficking in the United States. Victims are smuggled into the U.S. from China, Thailand, and other East Asian countries, and are forced to perform sexual acts on abusive customers. On the outside, the store appears to be jut a normal massage parlor. This is one of the most infamous forms of sex slavery.

Trafficking can be used for many purposes besides sex. Many domestic workers, such as nannies, housekeepers, and hotel maids, are trafficked. Those trafficked in these industries are likely to be immigrants, Traffickers may confiscate their green cards, passports, or other documentation. Fear of deportation, as well limited English skills and not knowing U.S. labor laws, prevent both documented and undocumented victims from reporting their situation.

Why is it so hard to put an end to trafficking?

Traffickers actively hide signs that their workers are being forced or threatened to the public eye. As a result, most ordinary individuals don’t realize that the cashier at their corner store or their local bartender could be a trafficking victim, and therefore cannot report it.

Systemic barriers also prevent victims from receiving adequate assistance. Sex work is a crime in most states, meaning that victims who are forced to perform sex acts for money are arrested and treated as criminals, rather than victims forced to do these things.

Also, having been smuggled into the U.S., victims are often seen as undocumented immigrants, rather than refugees, and may face being deported back to their home countries, where they were first forced into trafficking and could be forced back into it.

What is being done about it?

Organizations such as the Polaris Project are dedicated to helping locate, rescue, and reintegrate victims and survivors of sexual violence and human trafficking. They provide statistics every year on who gets trafficked and who is vulnerable to it, in order to protect vulnerable populations.

Human trafficking is an epidemic that cannot be stopped by individuals alone. Supporting organizations dedicated to ending modern-day slavery, giving aid to its victims, and pressuring those in power to take stronger measures against it are all ways to put an end to trafficking in the near future.

For information on how to identify human trafficking victims and what to do, visit the U.S. State Department's website and learn more from the Polaris Project.

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