When most Americans think of slavery, it’s likely that their minds’ focus immediately goes to the infamous transatlantic slave trade of the 18th century. Over the course of 260 years, slave traders forcibly removed 24 million people from their homes in Africa to live out the rest of their lives in slavery. Today, we acknowledge slavery as a dark part of our country’s past, vowing to not let the atrocities of slavery be repeated. But the harsh truth is that a different kind of slavery, human trafficking, still exists around the world, in the U.S., and even here in Ohio.
Robin McNeal, teen advocate at Turning Point in Marion, lists human trafficking as one of the issues she is most passionate about. Part of Robin’s job as teen advocate is traveling to local middle and high schools to talk to teens about healthy and safe relationships. In her presentation, she defines human trafficking as “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or sexual act.”
According to the International Labor Organization’s (I.L.O.) most recent report, more than 40 million people were victims of human trafficking in 2016. Among these 40 million, 25 percent were children under the age of 18, and 71 percent were women. Robin also mentions that human trafficking is the world’s second-largest criminal enterprise, just behind drug trafficking. The I.L.O. estimates the annual profits of human trafficking worldwide to be roughly $150 billion. The numbers are obviously appalling, but for many, human trafficking still seems like a far-away issue. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case.
The Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force’s 2017 report states that Ohio is ranked No. 4 in the United States for reported human trafficking cases. As the task force notes, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Ohio has the fourth-largest human trafficking problem because only reported cases can be accounted for. Nevertheless, human trafficking is a significant presence in our state. Last year, the Ohio Human Trafficking Commission (headed by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine) reported 208 potential victims of human trafficking statewide. Although initiatives like the Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force, the Ohio Human Trafficking Commission, and the Ohio Network of Anti-Human Trafficking Coalitions have made notable strides in putting an end to human trafficking, DeWine says there is still more work to be done.
DeWine’s office implemented a law enforcement training program to teach officers ways to identify runaway youth who are at-risk of being victims of human trafficking. As a result of this program, 146 juveniles were identified as being high-risk for human trafficking. DeWine believes that this program is a step in the right direction and hopes to implement more specialized law enforcement training in the future.
Robin McNeal says that preventative initiatives like this one are especially important in the fight against human trafficking. Juveniles are often a trafficker’s target age for victims, which is why Robin includes information on human trafficking in her presentation for middle and high school students.
Just as it does every year, the recent Super Bowl brought considerable media attention to human trafficking. It has become a fairly widespread idea that the Super Bowl’s host city becomes a sort of mega-hub for human trafficking in the weeks surrounding the event. While research does show a spike in human trafficking reports and arrests during the Super Bowl, this is not an effect that exists only with the NFL’s championship game.
Lauren Martin, who is nationally recognized for her work and research in the area of human trafficking, says that making this association can actually be somewhat harmful as it detracts from the fact that this is an issue that affects victims 365 days a year and not only during the Super Bowl. A recent report by Reuters points out that anytime a major event (especially sporting events and other events promoting a “party atmosphere”) takes place, human trafficking numbers are likely to rise. A close to home example is Columbus’s own Arnold Sports Festival. The Arnold attracts over 50,000 attendees annually, and each year anti-trafficking groups team up with law enforcement to anticipate this spike.
Human trafficking is clearly a dark and dangerous presence, and the fact that it’s happening in our own backyard is irrefutably terrifying. Of course, there is always hope. Aside from the initiatives previously listed, there are many national and local organizations working to prevent human trafficking and offer assistance to victims.
The SWITCH National Anti-Human Trafficking Network and the Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition are two Columbus-based organizations that focus on raising awareness for human trafficking and providing support to victims as they work toward recovery.
One of central Ohio’s more specialized and unique organizations is Survivor’s Ink; a grassroots project that pays for victims to have scars or branding tattoos (left by a trafficker) removed or covered. She Has a Name Cleaning Services and Freedom a la Cart Catering Service are two businesses that offer employment and support to victims as they re-enter the workforce. Another unique initiative is the S.O.A.P. Project. S.O.A.P. is an organization that places bars of soap labeled with the human trafficking hotline number in places that are likely to be used as trafficking sites (mostly in hotel and motel bathrooms). In addition to the millions of bars of soap they distribute, S.O.A.P. offers training to hotel employees to help them identify victims. S.O.A.P. outreach is often scheduled around large events to help combat the increase in human trafficking numbers. In fact, the organization works to “S.O.A.P. Up the Arnold” in Columbus each year.
Anyone can help fight human trafficking. The most important thing an individual can do is knowing how to identify the signs. Potential signifiers to look for include visible signs of physical abuse, lack of personal belongings, homelessness, a tattoo or branding of a potential trafficker’s name, a teen dating a much older partner, evidence of drug use, the individual does not have access to his/her finances and personal documents, the individual is unaware of their current location, or the individual appears anxious and unable to make eye contact. Human traffickers often seek out victims in places that are busy and public such as school campuses, malls, bus stops, parties, and other social hangouts. In addition to knowing the indicators, if you would like to volunteer to help put an end to human trafficking, visit www.endslaverynow.org/act/volunteer to find volunteer opportunities near you.
If you notice red flags of human trafficking in an individual or if you are a victim of human trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s 24-Hour Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. There is always help, and there is always hope
Alexandra Kauser is a professional writing intern at Turning Point in Marion. Turning Point operates in six central Ohio counties, offering shelter, counseling, advocacy and general support to victims of domestic violence of any kind, including human trafficking.