By Tamara Laine
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. It’s a world-wide problem where criminals are using violence, fraud and coercion to control some of society’s most vulnerable for profit.
In a Currents News special series, Human Trafficking Exposed, we breakdown the scope of the problem and introduce you to some of the warriors who have dedicated their lives to combatting this evil atrocity.
It is a silent epidemic. Young girls, women, and boys are trafficked and sexually exploited in neighborhoods across the country. Every new day is another day that millions are victimized in the estimated $150 billion-dollar industry.
Rachel Lloyd knows the damage being done first hand. She’s a survivor of human trafficking who broke free with the help of a church on a U.S. airbase all the way in Germany.
We rode with Llyod back to where she began doing her outreach – Hunts Point in the Bronx. For 20 years she has been fighting for the survivors lost in the hidden world of America’s modern-day slavery.
“At night, save for a drunk or two, there is no one out here. Right? The violence the girls experienced and still experience, but out here no one is going to hear you scream. The girls went through terrible stuff out here,” said Lloyd.
According to the latest report on forced labor by the ILO, there are 40.3 million people in modern slavery around the world.
The numbers are staggering:
24.9 million people in forced labor
15.4 million people in forced marriage
4.8 million people in forced sexual exploitation
10 million children
Although the scope of the problem is global, the dark underbelly of the crisis in the U.S. is often overlooked- a growing problem that many turn a blind eye to. To uncover the scope of the problem we spoke to local advocates like Carol Smolenski who’s been fighting for survivors’ rights since the 1990’s.
“People don’t think it happens here because frankly, we are the richest country in the world and we consider ourselves protective of our children,” said Smolenski.
It’s a fight Reverend David Schilling has also dedicated his life to. “We have an obligation as faith-based institutions. Protestant, Catholic, Jewish. and Muslim. And socially responsible investors to utilize our influence to address one of the most egregious human rights violations,” said Schilling.
It takes the combined effort of communities, faith-based institutions, law enforcement, and families to combat what Pope Francis has called a scourge on humanity.
Though New York City is a destination city for traffickers, what is less spoken about is the domestic trafficking that happens here in the Big Apple – young girls and children, targeted by predators. And it is happening right now in every borough.
We met with Jessica Melton, Chief of the Human Trafficking Unit at the Queens County District Attorney’s Office, and she says that Queens is an epicenter. “Basically, cultural and ethnic diversity paired with access in our geography make Queens a center for rampant trafficking both sex and labor,” said Melton.
The Violent Crimes and Crimes Against Children Division of the FBI works on this on a daily basis. Michael Osborn is the Assistant Special Agent in Charge. Most recently, his agents were a part of a sweeping raid, named ‘Independence Day.’
“New York is a transitory city,” said Osborn. “What we see commonly is people who don’t have a good understanding of human trafficking, that will say this is a situation where we have a complicit victim. They don’t understand how vulnerable this victim was,” he continued.
Melton echoes Osborn’s sentiments. “They target immigrants, children, people with little family or social support systems, people with psychological or emotional problems,” she added.
Catholic women of faith like Sister Ann Oestreich, part of the anti-trafficking network, Talitha Kum, walked with us outside the United Nations before heading in for a human trafficking symposium. She explains some common misconceptions.
“In this country I think we think that human trafficking happens somewhere else,” said Oestreich.
She never thought when she joined Talitha Kum she would be working with law enforcement, politicians, and organizations like Truckers Against Trafficking.
“Human trafficking is a very high profit and low-risk endeavor. We need to turn that on its head and make it a very high risk, lower profit industry,” Oestreich continued.
And though there is no official estimate on the number of victims in the United States or in New York, experts say the number reaches into the hundreds of thousands with reported cases rising.
Smolenski says, “We talk about protecting children. And how is it that our kids, American kids, are allowed to be bought and sold in the sex trade?”
Driving with Lloyd, we see just how the internet has changed the once crowded corners of Hunts Point, New York – an industrial graveyard that was once a destination for sex trafficking is now deserted.
“In the 90s and early 2000s, this whole avenue would be just packed with Johns’ cars. Sometimes on a Friday Saturday night just back to back to back. Like traffic jams – John jams,” said Lloyd.
But the demand has not died. It has just moved into a darker, less safe place and it is proliferating – making the need to combat it ever dire.
“This is a mandate of the gospel. And we have given our lives to living out their gospel and following Jesus Christ. If Jesus were here, he would be part of our networks,” said Oestreich.
And there are those that will never stop fighting. Taking the lead are the survivors. Brave women and men who with bold voices and determined hearts are stepping forward to end the evils of trafficking.
Part two of this five part series, Human Trafficking Exposed, will air next Thursday, January 23, on NET-TV at 7:00 p.m.