A few years ago, my perception of human trafficking was that it involved people beyond our borders, cartels even, who were wrongly controlling and manipulating people’s lives in areas like employment.
This first month of 2021 is National Slavery & Human Trafficking Prevention Month and, as in my case, greater awareness of this crisis is badly needed.
My eyes were first opened to the extent of human trafficking a few years ago when I was working at one of our morning breakfast programs. Someone pointed to a nearby building and told me that it was used by traffickers. They would bring victims from New York on the weekends and use the building for trade.
This brought home to me the reality that human trafficking is not just an international effort. Right in our own communities, human beings are treated in inappropriate ways and not with the justice and dignity they deserve.
At its core, trafficking involves achieving leverage over another person and using that leverage to force them into “commercial” activities. Who is being trafficked? Anyone with vulnerabilities. Traffickers exploit those vulnerabilities, and it can happen to males, females, adults, children, U.S. citizens, immigrants, the poor, the wealthy.
Here’s a statistic that shocks and saddens me: More than 49,000 cases of human trafficking in the United States have been reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) between 2007 and 2019, which receives an average of 150 calls a day.
In the United States, trafficking is an issue affecting the labor market. Victims of trafficking are working in forced servitude on construction sites, in restaurants and even in private homes. This practice is widely under noticed and underreported. Many of these victims are lured in these situations by simply responding to what they think is a job posting online.
At Catholic Charities DC, we do our absolute best to help victims through our Trafficking Victims Assistance Program, but the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the problem. The impact on the economy means fewer job opportunities, which, in turn, means more people face desperate financial circumstances. It also means trafficking survivors are more vulnerable to being revictimized. Traffickers take advantage of this to exploit people.
We are receiving more and more referrals for help. Our workers are trained to identify the signs of trafficking, help overcome barriers and aid victims, including helping them find employment.
The SHRM article How Workplaces Can Fight Human Trafficking shares that “Companies can combat modern-day slavery by creating an environment hostile to human traffickers. That means educating employees about how to recognize trafficking and how to properly intervene in suspected cases.”
Signs that someone is a potential victim:
- Expresses fear, anxiety, depression, submissive behavior or shame and guilt.
- Exhibits unusually fearful and anxious behavior.
- Avoids eye contact.
- Works excessively long or unusual hours and is not free to come and go.
- Doesn’t know where s/he is.
- Inconsistent stories.
- Lack of control over money.
- Self-harming behavior.
Human trafficking is not a pleasant subject to talk or think about, but we must confront the evil as best we can and help our brothers and sisters in its grip.
Catholic Charities DC’s Trafficking Victims Assistance Program is in need of mentors to work with trafficking survivors. If you’d like to help, visit catholiccharitiesdc.org/volunteer.