The Story Behind the Story: Human Trafficking

While I may be writing a futuristic novel with science-fiction hybrids, the real basis of this story is all too real. I can honestly say that this story would never have happened had I not become aware of and involved in efforts to end human trafficking.

Stories like Alex’s, Anja’s, and Jules’s aren’t always fiction. Modern slavery still happens in countries around the world. And there are many faces of it. More than 30 million. It’s often easy to tell ourselves that since we don’t live somewhere in Asia or Africa, and we’re not involved in the porn or prostitution industries, there cannot be trafficking in our community. It doesn’t affect us, right? Wrong.

The clothes we wear and the food we eat may have been produced by laborers working for little or no wages in terrible, dangerous conditions. Children under the age of ten may have picked the cocoa for our chocolate. Farmers paid next to nothing for their work often grow the coffee beans for our morning jolt of caffeine (and trust me, as a writer who often stays up far too late working on her ideas, that one’s hard to swallow-literally).

The side of modern slavery most of us are familiar with is sex trafficking. Pornography and prostitution are rampant across the globe, and it is often minority populations that suffer. Immigrants, foster children, and people from the LGBTQ community are seen as vulnerable by these predators and exploited. While most of us probably have mental pictures of a red light district and neon signs with suggestive language, sex trafficking takes many less blatant forms. Places that advertise as oriental massage parlors can be fronts for trafficking especially if they advertise late hours. Hotels and truck stops also operate as centers for prostitution, and certain auction and online sale websites have subsections where people can contact a sex worker.

Labor trafficking occurs in sweatshops in Southeast Asia, coffee and cocoa farms in Africa and Central America, and migrant farm workers in the United States. People are forced to work long hours for little or no money, and often they are also made to rent their housing, keeping them in debt to their employer and preventing them from ever leaving the job to find a new one.

Places like foreign food restaurants, nail salons, and hair braiding salons all can employ immigrant workers who are trapped because they speak poor or no English and also have have had their papers taken by their ’employer’. Threatened with being turned in as illegal immigrants, people are afraid to try to leave their situations.

There’s no real way to know how many people in an area are actually trafficking victims. While it is possible to gain some rough estimates from sites like the Polaris Project, these numbers are far fewer than the real story.  The only statistics available are for reported cases, and like rape, trafficking is a very under-reported crime. Victims are often too afraid or ashamed to step forward, and people who see these crimes taking place may ignore it as none of their business or simply not recognize what is happening.

Sometimes all it takes is someone willing to see, to stop and actually notice the brokenness for what it is. These things hide in plain sight, in places we may choose not to see because to know that something exists makes us a bit responsible. But ignoring the problems does not mean that they do not happen. It simply means that we are not able to help those for whom we might be a last chance.

There are some easy ways to start becoming involved in ending trafficking.

1. Learn the National Human Trafficking Hotline number.  1 (888) 373-7888

This number allows someone to confidentially report a trafficking case, whether it is for themselves or for someone else. The reporting can be completely anonymous and there are trained responders available 24/7 to give advice. This hotline is run by the Polaris Project, which also offers online information and resources as well as text hotlines.

2. Educate yourself on the subject.

The first step to ending trafficking is being aware that it exists, and what it looks like. It’s easy to listen to someone talk about an issue, or read a book or watch a movie about it, and think that since someone is already talking about this, and people are already working on the problem, it’s not something we need to worry about. But everyone is affected in some way by trafficking. This is everyone’s problem, and everyone can be part of the solution. As mentioned, the Polaris Project offers a great deal of information on trafficking specifically in the United States. The Blue Campaign is the Department of Homeland Security’s initiative to end human trafficking and gives information on how to report suspected cases as well as basic information on human trafficking. The site A Heart For Justice is another good place to start, it offers links to resources, information, and also recommendations for books and movies that explore human trafficking. International Justice Mission is a faith based organization that also offers information and resources to learn more about current issues around the globe. HumanTraffickingEd is geared toward providing information for emergency medical workers but offers a helpful overview for others as well.

3. Find a local group that is working to end area trafficking.

Local groups often know a great deal about what issues are the most prevalent and serious in their specific area. Getting connected with them can help you learn more about the most common kinds of trafficking that you might be exposed to in your local area, and you might even be able to find ways to get involved through their work. These groups sometimes conduct local training sessions, hold conferences, or host fundraisers to support efforts to end trafficking. Groups often have Facebook presences or can be found through community organizations such as homeless shelters, centers for assisting with domestic violence, or churches.

4. Learn more about Fair Trade products.

Companies that receive Fair Trade certifications are inspected to be sure that they are paying workers fair wages and not using child labor. Coffee and chocolate are fairly easy to find as fair trade goods, and there are some websites that can help determine what stores and brands are less likely to be using trafficked labor. SlaveryFootprint and BetterWorldShopper both can help determine what products you use might be produced by slave labor. While the end result of learning all this may look daunting, start small. Pick one or two products to start purchasing as Fair Trade, because even a small action can make a big difference.

5. Be aware and alert to potential trafficking situations.

Not only can this potentially help identify trafficking victims, it can also help protect you. Paying attention to suspicious vehicles, strangers offering assistance-or asking for it, or people behaving strangely in hotels or rest stop areas is vital to both protecting yourself from becoming a victim as well as helping those who are already trapped. Reporting suspicious activity to the police or a trafficking hotline is important. Many times people do not report because they are unsure of whether their suspicion is genuine and do not want to bother police unnecessarily or cause trouble if the case is not legitimate. However, it is better to over-report than under-report. Another easy way to assist in police investigations of trafficking is to use the site TraffickCam, which allows people to post photos of hotel rooms so police can match them to backgrounds of child pornography videos.

6. Spread the word

Human trafficking is a silent crime. Few know it exists, even fewer are willing to do anything about it. Fewer than five percent of Americans know that the trafficking hotline exists. Even fewer would ever actually call it. There are easy ways to help inform others about the dangers of trafficking. Teaching children about stranger danger, while it may sound clichéd, is a good way to help protect them from becoming victims. Volunteering to help at or participate in local fundraisers is another short term commitment that can help raise awareness. Buying fair trade chocolate and clothing as gifts for family and friends is also a good way to start a conversation. Helping start or promote petitions for local and national legislation to fight trafficking is another small action that can have a large effect. Legislation to enforce closer inspections of businesses that may be employing slave labor, or to help fight child porn and prostitution can of course only be as effective as long as it is enforced, but having protective laws can help deter trafficking.

Another very important thing to remember is that those who have been victims of trafficking are not the ones to blame. They have often been threatened, coerced, or manipulated into these situations, and they have been strong enough to survive. Their stories are far more than one event, and they deserve respect and support, rather than condescension or patronizing pity. Anyone could be a victim. They could be your next door neighbor, a waiter or waitress, your best friend, or your child’s classmate. And anyone can be a survivor too, someone who has rebuilt their life and refused to allow the pain of their past to control their future. Those who are ready to share their stories deserve our respect and our support. They have been through something horrific and had the courage to talk about it.

Every day, slavery happens, and knowing that is a very painful thing. We can choose to deny it, or to do something about it. There is always a choice. But I would encourage you not to forget that this problem exists.

Speak up for those who can’t. Or, as Anj would say,

Find Your Voice