What you should know about human trafficking, and how you can help victims

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. While the month is nearly over, the heinous violence of the human trafficking industry is ongoing, and our vigilance in helping victims and survivors should never stop. Here, a contributor explains what happens to trafficked people, and how we can fight for them.

I grew up in the South Texas town of Corpus Christi. Living there had many perks, but I especially loved the trips we got to take further south into Mexico. This was the time before passports were required to cross the border, so my family would sometimes drive to the two-nation town of Laredo to see our relatives in the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo.

Our most memorable visit sticks out in my mind less because of our stay, and more because of our journey home. I was very young—around 6 years old—and was driving back with my parents, grandparents, and sister.

My grandfather, a man who was constantly teasing someone, began to give my mom a hard time. He teased her that, when we approached the border, they would flag her and make her stay in Mexico. She was the only one in the car with light eyes and skin, the rest of us having darker features. The idea that my mom, with her blue eyes and porcelain skin, would be held instead of my dark-skinned dad and grandparents was laughable to everyone.

We continued on our trip home, but when we got to the American border, my grandfather’s joke proved to be more accurate than we’d realized. The border agent took one look at our car and waved us over to the search lane. To our surprise, it was my mom that caused him to be suspicious of us. What he saw was a young white women in a car of Latinos which, to him, was dubious. After a discussion and check of IDs, we were waved through.

This memory is vivid because of how strange it was, though I didn’t completely understand it until years later.

My home of Texas is a center of human trafficking.

One-fourth of all people trafficked to the United States enter through the South Texas border. At any given time, Texas contains 25% of all victims of human trafficking and one-third of all calls to the Human Trafficking Prevention Hotline originate from Texas.

Mainly impacting children and women, this epidemic forces its victims into a life where they are continually abused and exploited. Often, they are sold into the sex trade. Sex slavery regularly puts victims in situations that lead to mental, physical, and sexual abuse. They are more likely to be infected with STDs, suffer drug addiction, and be malnourished. These victims are also at risk of being charged for prostitution under laws that do not protect or consider victims of sex slavery (just think about Cyntoia Brown).

Subjects of human trafficking can also be sold into forced labor and domestic servitude. Often, these victims come to the states with the promise of real employment, only to learn that they will be forced into servitude. Live-in situations, like nannying or other kinds of household help, create an environment where it is difficult to escape captivity. Victims are often given room and board instead of actual wages, so if they escape, they will be leaving their only source of livelihood and shelter.

Forced labor often entails victims coerced into an industry, brought over from other countries to work in textile sweatshops for little to no pay with no opportunities to escape their captors. The agricultural and construction industries are also full of this forced labor, and workers are made to believe they will face a penalty if they don’t work. These penalties are in the form of threats to turn the worker over to ICE, refusal to pay wages, or infliction of physical and/or sexual violence. false

Forced marriage is also a problem that falls into the category of domestic servitude. This subset of human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry. Married to a stranger without their consent, these women and children are placed in a position that is nearly impossible to escape. They often face the limitations of a language barrier and limited contact with the world outside of the marriage. While some women do enter these relationships willingly, often referred to as “mail order brides,” they are still at risk. This type of abuse is a mix of domestic servitude and sexual enslavement.

It should be mentioned that human trafficking goes both ways. Besides those being brought to the United States as slaves, people—mostly women and children—are trafficked into Mexico and other countries. There, they suffer similar fates as those trafficked into the States. Some countries warn tourists of the dangers of human trafficking, but tourists themselves are also guilty of human trafficking and sex tourism. Countries like Thailand are actively trying to kill their sex tourism industry, but it remains a problem for their population.

The truths behind the heinous trafficking industry are stark, but the public can help protect current victims and prevent new ones.

1Become aware of the signs of human trafficking in our communities.

Sudden appearances or disappearances of people is often a major red flag. Did you notice that a person is not free to come and go as they please, is paid very little (or not at all) for their work, has visible signs of abuse, or appears fearful and anxious? These are all warning signs.

2Know what to do if you suspect trafficking.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline is the best anonymous way to make a report. You can also report any concerns to local authorities or call 911 if there is an immediate fear for life.

3 Raise awareness and volunteer your support.

This is the next step in eliminating human trafficking. Volunteering at non-profits that support rescue and resources for trafficking people is a great way to help. It’s also extremely beneficial to get involved with local politics so you can assist in passing legislation that will protect these victims.

4Educate the people around you.

Educating others about the crimes of human trafficking can help ease the stigma surrounding its victims. Often, these people are cast off or neglected by society because of their abuse. However, anyone could become a victim of this industry. Understanding and kindness is the only proper way to approach those hurt by trafficking.

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For the millions of people hurt by human trafficking in the United States, these small acts could be the difference between freedom and captivity. It could be the difference between life and death. And they’re counting on us to make that difference on their behalf.