Human Trafficking 101

The U.S. State Department defines human trafficking as “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.” (Trafficking in Persons Report 2008)

That sounds reasonable, and to be honest, a bit dry… for me, human trafficking became real while I was helping to set up a refugee camp in Eastern Europe during the 1999 war in Kosovo. My time there was brief, just a few weeks, but the experience left a significant mark on my life. During my stay, I was assigned two translators, one of whom I will call Maria. She was an attractive young woman in her late teens who spoke multiple languages. At the end of each day, as she walked me back to the house where I was staying we had the opportunity to share bits and pieces of our life stories. Eventually, Maria told me that about a year prior as she was searching for employment in her home village, an offer was made by a gentleman that she vaguely knew to go to Italy and work in a restaurant where he had connections. She, along with two other girls she knew, accepted his offer, and were soon living in Italy with their passports and identity papers in the hands of their new employer. It turned out that the man who offered them the jobs had tricked them into leaving their home country only to sell them to someone interested only in the money they could earn for him. The restaurant position was a cover, and these young women found themselves living and working in a brothel to repay the cost of their travel as well as their daily living expenses, both of which were grossly inflated.

I have since learned that Maria’s story is not uncommon. Trafficking in humans is a multi-billion dollar industry. According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) trafficking of humans is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world today, and second in profits only to drug dealing. It is estimated that 27 million people are enslaved in some form of sexual or labor exploitation – more than at any other time in history. Between 600,000 and 800,000 victims are transported across international borders annually – including our borders. This includes men, women and children; an estimated 80% of victims are female, and 50% are minors. Sadly, the sale of human beings is, like any other commercial industry, driven by supply and demand.

HHS outlines the common ways people are lured into the situations that result in sex trafficking, including:

  • a promise of a good job in another country
  • a false marriage proposal turned into a bondage situation
  • being sold into the sex trade by parents, husbands, boyfriends
  • being kidnapped by traffickers

Traffickers use a variety of methods to teach their victims submission, including beatings, confinement, rape, starvation, threats of violence to the victims and their families, and the threat of shame by revealing their “work” to their family and friends.

The average lifespan of a victim introduced into the sex industry is less than 7 years; thankfully, Maria’s story has a much different ending. After a few months, she managed to escape her captors (something which rarely happens) and returned to her home country. Remaining in her village proved to be very difficult, however, because of the way she was treated as people learned what happened to her in Italy. After the war, she was given the opportunity to move to another country, get an education and start a new life… which she has done.

I often wonder how many Maria’s I have met along the way without even realizing it. Lately, I’ve been asking if there is one living right in my back yard… or perhaps in yours.

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