Human trafficking. It’s forced labor, a form of modern slavery. It’s a growing epidemic in the United States and abroad, one that is gaining more and more exposure. It’s an act that many are working to bring to an end.
The topic was the focal point of a Compassion, Peace and Justice-sponsored session during the third annual Big Tent event hosted by the Presbyterian Church (USA), Aug. 1-3 in Louisville, Ky.
Speaking during the Aug. 2 session at the Kentucky Convention Center, Noelle Damico of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, talked about the ever-increasing acts of human trafficking, using real-life situations to fully magnify the problem.
“We hear a lot about human trafficking, but often what we hear is not exactly what it is,” she said. “There are active efforts among the federal and state governments to address this crime.”
Damico gave the definition of human trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining, by any means, any person for forced labor, slavery or servitude in any industry or site such as construction, prostitution, manufacturing, begging, domestic service or marriage.”
“Human trafficking is a fairly new identified category of crime. It’s a modern form of slavery,” she said. “The bad news is it’s in front of us. We pray that God helps us know what to do about this horrific, endemic, global problem. The good news is we’re working to do something about it.”
She encouraged presbyteries and local congregations to engage in human trafficking awareness training workshops to identify the acts of trafficking and its victims, generally people of all ages, young and old alike.
Damico cited an example of two Indonesian women in their 50s who were used as domestic servants in Long Island, N.Y. They were abused mentally, physically and sexually, hidden when their “masters” had visitors. They were tortured and threatened, with the threats extended to members of their families. Fearing for their lives they worked 20 hours a day.
Finally, one of them summoned the courage to run away. Only half-clothed she stumbled into a store where a clerk contacted the authorities to deal with a person who may have been emotionally unstable. That courage actually led to the revelation of what was taking place.
“When we hear about human trafficking, we often think it involves sex and kids,” Damico said. “These women were in their 50s and were taken advantage of.”
She went on to explain that all people are connected to human trafficking because it often extends along consumer lines.
“When we are purchasing things, we have to ask ourselves what is behind the tomatoes we’re eating, the coffee we’re drinking. In many cases, it’s forced labor,” Damico said. “We’re connected to this, and what we do matters.”
The people who end up in the human trafficking pipeline often are promised things that are not delivered, all to lure them into the web. Force, fraud, coercion – these are tools used by traffickers to ensnare their victims who then become engaged in various forms of forced labor, often child labor or child sex rings. For those profiting, trafficking offers chap labor often from an unskilled work force with limited (if any) rights in harsh conditions.
How great an issue has human trafficking become? It’s hard to put an actual figure on the number of people trafficked annually, but a 2012 global estimate of forced labor indicated the minimum was 20.9 million, up from 12.3 million in 2005. Those figures may be a bit skewed, however, because most data does not take into account many boys and men who are part of the crime.
After the drug trade, trafficking people is the second-largest criminal industry in the world and has been determined to be the fastest growing. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 55 percent of forced labor victims are women and girls, as are 98 percent of sex trafficking victims.
Damico pointed out that exploitation in the form of human trafficking knows no gender or nationality. Often associated with undocumented migrants, the crime extends to U.S. citizens trapped in the trafficking network here and in other countries.
Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) also spoke on the issue. CIW exists to recognize and assist victims of human trafficking. Benitez was awarded the 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for his efforts against the crime, and the coalition was presented the 2010 State Department Heroes Award for its work.
Speaking through a Spanish translator, Benitez said, “Human trafficking slavery exists on a continuum in our lives. There may be times when it is at our side or right in front of us, and we do not recognize it. Even people who work in social services clinics may not recognize it.”
Benitez told of a daring rescue of five migrant farm workers from a labor camp in Florida who were caught up in human trafficking. Those who tried to escape from their hellish environment were beaten in front of others as an example, and their families’ lives were threatened.
His agency was contacted, and Benitez worked out the details of the escape, going to the site, flashing the signal and then transporting those people from the site of their captivity. The actions on that day led to convictions of those involved in human trafficking.
“We as community members need to be involved and at the forefront of these cases,” Benitez said. “If we see somebody running and acting strange, we shouldn’t think, ‘Look at that crazy.’ Something could be happening. If we don’t stop and ask what’s going on, we are part of the problem.”
Damico said a pro-active stance needs to be taken to counter human trafficking, by the church, government and even individuals.
“I want to be a Lucas, to be that person who busts people out because the conditions are so horrible. I have incredible gratitude for people who can do this,” she said. “We’re here to end this.”
However, she uttered a word of caution in dealing with such matters, acknowledging the need to take a human rights-based approach.
“We see the urgency and want to rush in and rescue these people,” Damico said. “But we have to be careful because we could put them and others at risk or imbalance the dynamic of hero and victim. We could do harm if we produce an imbalance of power and become a hero.”
Damico also noted the need to respect the rights of trafficked people, shying away from forcing them to do something – a state many of victims find themselves in already – but rather informing them of their choices and respecting the decisions they make.
There also is no gain in buying a person’s freedom. The owner/master still profits, someone takes the place of the trafficked person in the web, the victim feels indebted to the one who paid the “ransom” and federal benefits for people in such conditions may not be accessible
“The Presbyterian Church does not advise buying people out of slavery,” Damico said.
Damico again encouraged those attending to share details of human trafficking with their congregations, engaging them in the fight to end such a heinous act against humanity.
“It’s not hopeless, but it requires dedication from all sectors to make it happen,” Damico said of ending human trafficking. “We’re not just trying to lessen it, we’re trying to end it. Remember that we are called by God to work with others to bring about our best thinking to end this.”
To learn the signs of or report suspected cases of human trafficking, call 1-888-373-7888 or visit http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/programs/anti-trafficking. Additional resources can be found at http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/human-trafficking/.
Also, join the effort on Facebook by participating in the “Presbyterians Don’t Pay for People” campaign.