While most of us are celebrating this holiday season in comfort with hopes of a joyous New Year, it is worth remembering that not everyone has these same opportunities. Some do not even get to enjoy the most basic freedoms we all take for granted. Believe it or not, more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, slavery still exists around the world, across the United States and even here in Palm Beach County.
No, it’s not out in the open. It’s in the shadowy underground, hiding in the dark recesses of society, often in plain sight.
The slavery of which we speak is that of human trafficking. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), there are some 27 million people enslaved worldwide, many of them living right here among us. Slave labor ranging from agricultural work to the sex trade, smuggled immigrants and U.S. citizens alike, are held captive and exploited on a daily basis.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States every year, and half of these are children. Of the 2,515 suspected human trafficking incidents reported between January 2008 and June 2010, nearly 500 cases were confirmed and nearly 150 arrests made. Eighty percent of the suspected cases were classified as sex trafficking.
The NHTRC has even more glaring statistics. Between December 2007 and December 2012, more than 72,500 human trafficking incidents were reported, with 41 percent sex trafficking and 20 percent labor trafficking. Women were identified as victims in 85 percent of these cases. And according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in every seven endangered runaways are child sex trafficking victims.
Just this year in Florida, through the end of September, the NHTRC received more than 1,100 calls regarding more than 300 human trafficking cases — and this likely just scratches the surface. Given the exponential growth of illegal “massage parlors” and “escort services” advertised on shadowy corners of the Internet, it is safe to say that for every filed report or law enforcement bust of an illegal establishment, multiple operations have opened shop behind closed doors.
In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, South Florida is the nation’s third-busiest region for sex trafficking, not to mention third in calls to the national hotline, which can be reached at (888) 373-7888, by texting “info” or “help” to 233733, and at www.traffickingresourcecenter.org. Palm Beach County is third in Florida in terms of calls to the NHTRC regarding suspected cases of human trafficking.
The U.S. Department of State suggests a number of ways that individuals can help fight human trafficking. These include incorporating human trafficking information in professional association conferences and trainings, distributing awareness materials, donating food or other needed items to anti-trafficking organizations, students taking action on campuses and contacting the NHTRC.
Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature passed legislation aimed at trying to bring more awareness to this shameful problem by mandating the posting of “human trafficking awareness signs” (which include the NHTRC hotline and text numbers) be posted in public and private locations statewide. The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2016, requires signs be posted across Florida, from interstate welcome centers and Florida’s Turnpike rest stops to airports and Tri-Rail train stations, from public libraries and public schools to adult entertainment locations. This includes strip clubs and any business offering massage or bodywork services not owned by a regulated healthcare professional.
We recognize that this new law is not enough, but it’s a start, because information is crucial when dealing with a below-the-radar crime such as human trafficking. Public transportation signage tells people from all walks of life that there is someone to call, anonymously, without fear of reprisal. We encourage you, as the New Year begins, to make a resolution to help end slavery of all types in the United States and beyond.