Awareness campaign targets human trafficking

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and local advocates for awareness are combatting the issue with their most useful tool: education.

This month, Springfield Rotary announced their effort to generate public awareness of human trafficking and recently approved $15,600 to fund a project: the Human Trafficking Awareness Campaign, which will continue through the month.

“It’s an endemic problem that doesn’t go away,” said Beth DeGeorge, a member of the Springfield Rotary Club.

As such, the awareness campaign plans to keep active through the year.

Globally, human trafficking is thought to produce roughly $150 billion per year, $99 billion of which comes from commercial sexual exploitation. It is second only to drug trafficking as the most lucrative crime.

Every year some 1-2 million men, women and children become victims of human trafficking.

The Springfield Rotarian awareness campaign posits that, though endemic, the problem can be effectively mitigated at the community level. The first step to preventing it and prosecuting the traffickers, they say, is to be aware of its local presence.

In Oregon, from October 2018 — October 2019, there were 750 reported cases of human trafficking. Lane County reported 120 cases, the second highest among 10 reporting counties. These numbers are considered conservative, as well, because most cases are never reported.

Awareness campaigners point out that one of the biggest impediments to anti-trafficking efforts is a lack of understanding of the issue.

Knowing who might be vulnerable, for instance, is a start. Traffickers tend to lure and ensnare people into forced labor and sex by manipulating and exploiting their vulnerabilities, preying on those who are hoping for a better life, lack employment opportunities, have an unstable home life, or have a history of sexual or physical abuse.

In the year 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was put into place. It established human trafficking and related offenses as federal crimes and defined the terms.

At its core, human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery and a human rights violation which involves force, coercion, or fraud to exploit a person into slave labor or sexual exploitation.

Sex trafficking includes a person induced to perform a sex act who has not yet reached the age of 18.

Labor trafficking is defined 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.”

Who is vulnerable?

The nonprofit Looking Glass works with runaway and homeless youth in Lane County, who happen to be a prime vulnerable demographic of the trafficking market.

The Sentinel had a chance to speak with a staff member about the prevalence of trafficking in the area, but the staff member’s name and title were requested to be withheld to protect those in need of care.

The staff member confirmed the Lane County number of around 120 cases, but due to underreporting “the real number is going to be astronomically higher,” they said.

Statistically, the staff member said those between the ages of 14 to 16 tend to be the most vulnerable, but a wide variety of factors can play into one’s risk factors.

“Adjudicated youth, homeless youth, youth in foster care, youth with trauma, these are the most likely to be victimized,” the staff member said.

They also noted that youths who are women of color and transgender women are much more likely to be trafficked.

“It was reported that around 40 percent of all indigenous women will be trafficked at some point in their life,” they said. “And statistically, one in five youths who experienced some form of homelessness will be trafficked in their lifetime.”

Many demographics fall into the victim category, however.

According to statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, around 70 percent are female and half of all victims are ages 19-33. The average age is 27, though many are younger than 12. And some are even born into this form of slavery.

How does it happen?

Often, it’s not simply a crime of opportunity; it’s a crime of intent. Victims are targeted methodically and the ensnarement can be gradual.

Though movies like “Taken” might dramatize human trafficking as a sudden kidnapping, these do not make up the majority of cases.

“Kidnapping definitely does happen,” said the Looking Glass staff member. “But that’s not the typical approach that I’m noticing.”

One often-cited risk factor is the lack of a stable support network.

Younger targets in particular without these support networks are easier to groom and victimize. Perpetrators often seek out children who appear vulnerable, depressed, seem emotionally isolated from family and friends, have low-esteem or appear to have a lot of unsupervised time.

“Looking at the populations that Looking Glass serves, these are youth who maybe have prior sexual abuse or physical abuse, so they may not know the warning signs, or they may be so used to that kind of treatment they’re not going to see it as abuse or see it as a bad thing happening,” explained the staff member. “They may also have a history of homelessness and so, when you’re surviving on the streets, you’re not going have access to safety, food or shelter. If someone comes along and says, ‘Hey, I can provide you a place to sleep tonight, but you have to have sex with me,’ you might be willing to do that because the alternative is staying on the streets. … And then by the time they get above 18, they’ve been in the life for so long, they’re so used to that kind of treatment, that they find it harder to get out.”

In some cases, one type of trafficking may even lead into another.

“It can start off with youth running drugs for a local gang or something like that. And then that very quickly turns into them using the substances with the trafficker,” said the Looking Glass staff member. “And when they’re compliable, then they force them to engage in non-consensual acts. And then once that’s happened, they’re like, ‘Hey, why don’t you go and do it with these other people, and you can make more money by doing it.’”

Perhaps most salient in the public eye these days is the case of Ghislaine Maxwell, who was found guilty last month of child sex trafficking. The case highlighted the tactic of luring and recruiting victims into sexual abuse.

However, these recruiters usually aren’t well-off socialites. In many of cases, they are victims themselves who have ended up becoming perpetrators.

While the tactics of a trafficker can vary, they ultimately resemble that of a predator.

“They are master manipulators who will use small acts of affection to gain control over the victim,” said the Looking Glass staff member. “So they’re going to use common tactics like force … or they’re going to use coercion like threats of exposure.”

One tool in combating the issue is simply to educate.

As part of this month’s awareness campaign, local experts in the field will hold a discussion at on Jan. 20, 5:30 p.m. at the Springfield Public Library. They will discuss how to recognize signs of trafficking and what to do if it is suspected.

The same day, the Springfield Public Library will hold a trafficking-awareness discussion for teens with tips for recognizing trafficking, how to stay safe and what to do if trafficking behavior is suspected.

To report cases of human trafficking, call: 888-373-7888.

Looking Glass 24-crisis hotline: 541-689-3111

In part two of this series, The Sentinel will look at the impact of this crime on its victims, identify ways to spot the warning signs and consider solutions.

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