10/29/2012 12:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Fight Against Human Trafficking in the United States

By Don Golden and Amy Hewat

"It ought to concern every person, because it's a debasement of our common humanity."
President Barack Obama, September 25, 2012

In a recent address to the Clinton Global Initiative, President Obama called human trafficking "modern day slavery" and "one of the great human rights causes of our time."
Human trafficking, which includes sex trafficking and forced labor, represents the fastest growing criminal industry in the world generating an estimated $32 billion in annual profits, more than the MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL make combined per year.

In response to this truly horrific crime against humanity, on September 25, President Obama signed an Executive Order to prohibit human trafficking in all federal government contracting. Obama's order applies to federal contractors (and subcontractors) working not only in the United States, but anywhere in the world. Since the U.S. Government is the single largest purchaser of goods and services world-wide, this new policy is expected to significantly curtail human trafficking in the global supply chain of goods and services. And by signing this order, President Obama made clear his determination to increase efforts to combat human trafficking.

Most Americans who are aware that slavery exists today assume it is happening outside the United States The unfortunate truth is that the number of individuals, both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens, who find themselves in bondage on U.S. soil is greatly increasing. In fact, it's estimated that roughly 14 to 17,000 foreign nationals are brought into the United States each year, in addition to our own citizens recruited into the industry. In labor trafficking, it can take the form of domestic servitude in middle and upper class neighborhoods, and forced labor in restaurants or agricultural work. It is a lucrative and appealing business for traffickers, including organized crime syndicates, gangs and individuals because there is a very low risk of being caught.

In sex trafficking, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that 100,000 to 300,000 American children are prostituted or at risk of commercial sexual exploitation within the U.S. each year, and the average age of entry is 13 years old. Child sex trafficking victims come from various socio-economic backgrounds and upbringings. They are recruited by pimps and peers appearing to be friends in malls, schools, at bus stops or as runaways on the street. Once attached, they are sold over and over, night after night, and/or are forced to work in strip clubs, used in pornographic films, sold on the internet, and made to walk the streets to meet a nightly quota set by the pimp.

This story of an enslaved runaway illustrates the vulnerability of our youth:

When Ashley was 12-years-old, she got into a fight with her mother and ran away from home. She ended up staying with her friend's older brother at his house and intended to go home the next day, but when she tried to leave he told her that he was a pimp and that she was now his property. He locked her in a room, beat her daily, and advertised her for sex on websites. Once, she looked out a window and saw her mother on the street, crying and posting flyers with Ashley's photo. When Ashley tried to shout her mother's name from the window her pimp grabbed her by the hair and yanked her back, threatening 'If you shout, I'll kill you.' Ashley eventually escaped her confinement and is now at a treatment center for girls who have been sexually trafficked in New York. (TIP report 2012)

With recent estimates suggesting that over 20 million people are enslaved in the world today, from domestic servitude in our upper class American homes, to residential brothels where "the girl next door" is being bought and sold for a pimp's profit, this heinous crime against humanity is gradually being uncovered and can seem overwhelming.

However, as President Obama noted in his speech, churches and community-based organizations like World Relief are answering the Bible's call to "seek justice" and "rescue the oppressed," alongside businesses and governments who are working to prevent slavery in their supply chains. Professional organizations are raising standards and implementing training protocol within their industries, from hospitality and transportation to medical providers.

Individuals looking to make a difference can affect their personal spheres of influence through prayer, education and partnership with organizations that are already fighting human trafficking. The most effective grassroots movements of volunteers and activists are those who connect with local task forces who have valuable experience and knowledge. These task forces are made up of dedicated law enforcement members, service providers and community members.

When we decide to learn more and take action, we are giving a voice to the voiceless and doing our part to reverse this trend, and to set captives free. As Desmond Tutu once said, "Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world."

Don Golden and Amy Hewat are respectively church engagement and anti-human trafficking professionals with Baltimore-based Christian aid agency World Relief. Since 2004, World Relief has partnered with local law enforcement to rescue and provide comprehensive services to survivors of human trafficking in the United States. World Relief trains thousands of community members how to identify victims of trafficking every year. For more information, visit or email