When the phone rings at 3 a.m. it’s a safe bet it’s not good news, especially when a police officer is on the other end of the call.
The call came to a Salvation Army social worker and the officer reported he and his partner had been called to a local motel to investigate a disturbance. They found two young women, aged 19 and 16, who were part of a prostitution trafficking ring and the officer wanted help getting them to safety.
North Carolina is reported to be one of the top 10 states in the nation in human trafficking, owing to our location as an east-coast hub for transportation, a state with many military installations and colleges, an economy dependent on agriculture and tourism and where immigrants come seeking work. In small towns and metropolitan areas traffickers prey on vulnerable people, exploiting, coercing and/or defrauding them into modern day slavery. The U.S. State Department estimates there are some 27 million men, women and children entrapped in this $150 billion a year worldwide criminal enterprise, second only to drugs.
Most of us aren’t aware of trafficking around us. Sexual exploitation is probably the most common, but human labor is also involved. It often starts innocently enough. Teenaged girls and boys, often runaways, meet friendly and understanding people willing to listen, offer understanding and promise help in the form of money, food and clothes. Some respond to ads and websites promising jobs, education and a better life, only to discover they are entrapped as sex slaves, dish washers, domestics, gardeners, workers in nail salons, farm workers or panhandlers. Hard as it may be to accept, there are parents who sell their children to traffickers for drugs or cash.
Why don’t the victims leave? Most have little to no money; whatever they earn is taken from them. They are confined, frequently moved from town to town and carefully watched. Traffickers employ a form of brainwashing, telling victims they are the only ones who care and are their best hope, at the same time threatening harm to them or their families if they escape or inform others. They offer proof behind those threats to keep victims in line. Their victims don’t know where to turn, sometimes don’t know where they are, who to trust or how to escape.
This is Human Trafficking Month and the first step in reducing these horrendous crimes is awareness. While not always a predictor, be on the lookout when people aren’t willing to engage in casual conversation, won’t give any details about themselves or suspiciously cast their eyes back and forth as if looking to see who might be watching. This is important: do not attempt to intervene, as it could be personally dangerous. If you think you see something suspicious report it immediately to local law enforcement or agencies such as The Salvation Army’s Project FIGHT (Freeing Individuals Gripped by Human Trafficking) in Raleigh, Charlotte, Asheville, Greenville and New Bern. They are properly trained in knowing how to intervene and have a success record protecting the victims and breaking up trafficking rings.
Trafficking is a lucrative business but when a community is unsafe for traffickers they will go elsewhere. We can all fight human trafficking by being alert to it. If you see something, say something.
Tom Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of NC Spin.