What Is Human Trafficking?

03/26/2017 10:15 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2017
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. It’s the exploitation of people and involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.

Contrary to popular misconception, Human Trafficking exists in every country, including the United States. If you think it’s always about foreigners and poor people then it’s imperative for you acquaint yourself with the facts.

Victims can be any age, race, gender or nationality. They can also come from any socioeconomic group. They’re not dirty or sex mad or stupid. They’re victims of a wide network of underground criminals.

Cindy Fritz-Russell, Missing Since Jan 20, 2017. Mary Catherine Thomas, Missing Since Mar 13, 2017
Courtesy of NCMEC
Cindy Fritz-Russell, Missing Since Jan 20, 2017. Mary Catherine Thomas, Missing Since Mar 13, 2017

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement defines these crimes in two ways:

Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or
The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.

It’s estimated that Human Trafficking generates many billions of dollars in profits per year; second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable form of transnational crime.

Award-winning filmmaker Mary Mazzio (whom I’ve previously written about in my article We Are All Jane Doe), is the producer and director of the film I Am Jane Doe. This documentary followed the heart breaking journey of several middle-school daughters, victims of Sex Trafficking on Backpage.com. Those harrowing experiences brought out the fighter in her—she’s not letting go of the bully pulpit any time soon.

“When I first read about Jane Doe #1, #2, and #3 filing suit against Backpage in Boston,” said Mazzio in a recent interview, “I was struck but the fact that Child Sex Trafficking happens here within our own borders. And in high numbers that would make your head spin.”

“Traffickers look for people who are vulnerable,” said Staca Shehan, Executive Director at National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC, a “clearing house for missing & exploited children”). “This could mean economic hardship, psychological or emotional issues or even the desire for affection. The trauma that traffickers cause can be so great that, even in highly public settings, many do not self-identify themselves as victims or ask for help.”

Gabriel and Isaiah Bryant. Missing Since Jan 16, 2017
Courtesy of NCMEC
Gabriel and Isaiah Bryant. Missing Since Jan 16, 2017

In 2016, NCMEC assisted law enforcement and families with more than 20,500 cases of missing children:

  • 90 percent endangered runaways.
  • 6 percent family abductions.
  • 1 percent lost, injured or otherwise missing children.
  • 1 percent nonfamily abductions.
  • 2 percent critically missing young adults, ages 18 to 20.

Of the more than 18,500 endangered runaways reported to NCMEC in 2016, one in six was likely a victim of child sex trafficking. Of those, 86 percent were in the care of social services when they went missing. Repeat: 86 percent.

Human Trafficking is nationwide—in rural towns, cities and suburbs. It could even be happening in your own community: to young people you know or even members of your own family. And the law is not always on their side.

“I was also struck by the fact that federal judges were excusing Backpage from all liability,” said Mazzio. “Even alleged criminal activity is shielded by an outdated internet freedom law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, in a particularly stunning decision, told these Jane Doe children that even if Backpage participated in the federal crime of sex trafficking, the case had to be dismissed. It simply did not make any sense to me that it was legal to host ads for the sale of children here in the United States.”

“The media is so focused on Sex Trafficking as an international issue,” said Emily Pasnak-Lapchick, Manager of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s End Trafficking Project. “People do not realize it happens in the USA and affects US citizens. They also don’t realize boys are being affected. And the assistance for male victims of trafficking is negligible at best. The misconceptions around these issues are astonishing.”

Illegal Fishing, Forced Labor and Murder

Other types of crimes related to Human Trafficking include Forced Labor and Slave Labor. The International Labor Organization estimates are frightening:

  • Almost 21 million people are victims of forced labor – 11.4 million women and girls and 9.5 million men and boys.
  • Almost 19 million victims are exploited by private individuals or enterprises and over 2 million by the state or rebel groups.
  • Of those exploited by individuals or enterprises, 4.5 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation.
  • Forced labor in the private economy generates US$ 150 billion in illegal profits per year.
  • Domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing and entertainment are among the sectors most concerned.

You can find victims of it in legitimate and illegitimate labor industries, restaurants, hotels, sweatshops, massage parlors, agriculture and domestic service. But perhaps the most undocumented of all such crimes is the illegal fishing activities of many countries.

Since March of 2016, Karsten von Hoesslin, Special Investigator, Remote Operations Agency and host of the Nat Geo series, Lawless Oceans, has been investigating the murder of four Longliner fishermen in August of 2012. The video, which is ten fleeting minutes of chilling footage taken with a cellphone, went viral on You Tube in 2014 and was the basis for his eventual investigation.

(WARNING: The video below contains graphic depictions and is not suitable for young children).

Von Hoesslin’s investigation, part of which was documented in the series, drew him into a web of illegal and unethical fishing which results in the useless slaughter of turtles, whales, sharks and sometimes dolphins.

“Illegal and unreported fishing, both of which occur throughout a great many maritime regions, has contributed to the massive depletion of fish stocks” said von Hoesslin. “This is especially true in the coastal waters of developing countries.

For example, in the murder video they are Longliners. They use a long line about 20 miles long with 7000 hooks on them. Whatever bites the bait gets caught. The dhows use net fishing techniques where they just toss a massive net in and drag everything up. Longliners are technically more sustainable but still bad. Plus many are not using the title friendly hooks so the turtles are also getting caught as well.”

Karsten von Hoesslin and one of his witnesses.
Karsten von Hoesslin and one of his witnesses.

So what’s the difference between illegal and unreported fishing? Von Hoesslin explains:

“Illegal Fishing relates to foreign vessel activities conducted with no permission from that particular maritime jurisdiction. It also refers to activities and methods of fishing that contravene fishery laws and regulations. This would be like fishing in Somali’s waters without a license.

“Unreported Fishing relates directly to fishing activities which have been misreported or not been reported at all by those vessels to relevant national authority. For example, some vessels harvest more tonnage than they are entitled to catch under official fishing quotas. Unreported fish catches are effectively laundered by being mixed in with reported fish catches.

“This includes fishing anything and everything in ‘international waters’ but without regulating the catch quotas. These quotas still exist and are imposed by specific commissions under the FAO of the UN (such as the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission).”

Some experts put the annual figure at around 11 million tons; others suggest that it may be as high as 26 million tons. “It’s a black market, though,” said von Hoesslin. “And these estimates are, at best, unreliable because of that.”

“It’s not necessarily a question of illegal migration and the murders in this case,” said von Hoesslin, “but rather that many of the key witnesses are in fact slave fishermen who are too afraid to speak up and have themselves experienced very traumatic and psychological abuses. Many of these deckhands are duped into joining these ships for the promise of money and then work in slave like conditions. During my investigation into the murders, I interviewed a number of deckhands who were treated like trafficked slaves.”

By August of 2016, von Hoesslin was able to discover the identity of the murderer of the four fishermen, a man he refers to as Captain Hoodlum, and has been working diligently to obtain his arrest.

Von Hoesslin has been thwarted by lack of government concern, red tape, and an unsympathetic immigration system. Despite numerous near misses, he keeps going and is determined to bring about a just conclusion.

Hidden Crimes

You might ask why it is you aren’t seeing much of what goes on. That’s because Human Trafficking is usually a hidden crime, its victims afraid to come forward so as to find help. They’re forced or coerced through threats or violence; they fear retribution or fear of the safety of their families. Many have lost control of their identification documents, or they may never have had any in the first place.

Dennis and Patrick Weinert, two young filmmakers from Germany, have been documenting Sex Trafficking in the east for a number of years. Under cover as potential clients, they’ve covertly interviewed pimps and prostitutes. Although prostitution is prohibited in the United Arab Emirate, it seems that officials often look the other way when money is on the table.

Dennis & Patrick Weinert in Sindhupalchok District Nepal 2016
Dennis & Patrick Weinert in Sindhupalchok District Nepal 2016

“We risk a lot,” say the brothers, “but we can always back out from any potential arrangements by saying the price is too high. And we’re always relieved when we’re out of those kinds of situations.”

The Weinert Brothers have encountered many who are trapped into forced prostitution and labor trafficking—the latter often within construction environments. Once these victims become enslaved, their movement is often restricted because their personal documentation is being held by their “employers”; they’re forced into unsanitary and stressful living conditions and receive little to no healthcare or basic services. Most of them experience significant emotional, physical, sexual, and psychological violence.

NOTE: The video below is predominantly in German. However, you can turn on Closed Captions and use the auto-translate function in less than 10 seconds: click on SETTINGS; SUBTITLES; select GERMAN; click AUTO-TRANSLATE and select the language of choice.

In the United Arab Emirates, whenever the brothers asked about the chance to meet women, taxi drivers and former hotel staff members provided the same information—any five star hotel can provide for all of their needs; the police are no problem.

Hyatt Regency UAE Review
Hyatt Regency UAE Review

A quick look at customer reviews on Trip Advisor shows just how true that is: Hyatt Regency, St. George Hotel, Moscow Hotel, York International Hotel—all have reviews from disgruntled guests who were not amused by the goings on. “Not every prostitute there is a victim of human trafficking,” the Weinert Brothers are quick to point out. “But traffickers use these places as a platform. One former victim we spoke to was forced by her pimp to work at the Hyatt Regency, amongst other big hotels, some years ago and prostitution is still going on there.”

York Hotel UAE Review
York Hotel UAE Review

“Strangely,” said the Weinert Brothers, “Hyatt Regency UAE claims on its website that they are proactively combating human trafficking, allegedly having been certified by Polaris.” Clearly, something is wrong.

Perhaps the worst part of this is when it happens to a minor. Some are forced or coerced; others are induced to perform commercial sex acts out of desperation. Regardless, under federal law, every minor induced to engage in commercial sex is a victim of human trafficking.

Why Is This Happening?

Exploitation is clearly at the heart of human trafficking. With respect to sex trafficking, exploitation implies forced prostitution or sexual abuses of vulnerable men, women, and children. According to the United States’ Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA):

  • It’s “a crime to coerce, force, or mislead men, women, and children into sex slavery, whether those efforts to coerce are subtle or overt.”
  • However, if a victim “is a minor (under 18),” it’s considered a crime regardless if there is evidence of force, fraud, or coercion.

According to the International Labor Organization (the United Nations agency that deals with global labor issues), the latest global estimate show that nearly 21 million people are victims of Human Trafficking worldwide. Roughly 4.5 million of those victims are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

“Lack of awareness is a huge problem,” said Shehan. “People do not fully understand victimization. They fail to separate adults from under-aged children. So many misconceptions exist.”

Pasnak-Lapchick agrees. “Awareness is low. We struggle with this underground industry for data, studies and estimates. It’s so hard to inform and convince legislators without hard data. It’s equally difficult to advocate for funding (lack of beds for kids is an example). Boys in particular face hardships.

“And the lack of training for law enforcement is lamentable. Kids are being arrested as opposed to assisted because the police, teachers, social services, families and other officials don’t know what signs to look for. The first step in identifying those who are victimized is recognizing key indicators of human trafficking. This can help change a life.”

But lack of awareness appears not to be the only factor. The Weinert Brothers have discovered that given the right remuneration, officials in places like the United Arab Emirates will turn a blind eye to illegal activities.

Likewise, von Hoesslin has also found this may very well be the case on a higher level. “Reluctance on the part of governments is a problem,” said Von Hoesslin. “NCIS can’t get involved because it’s out of their jurisdiction and there’s no American involved. Interpol more or less has to wait for an agency or government to ask them to step in.

“I’ve basically been pursuing this on my own, using my own funds, in hopes of getting one of the agencies to arrest him. I can’t understand why I’m the only one pursuing this. The Seychelles, Iran, Pakistan, Taiwan and China could request international arrest warrants from Interpol, and the Seychelles has all the evidence. But they seem not to want to pursue it because it might shed light on the illegal/unregulated fishing activities, many of which bring in massive amounts of money.”

What Can You Do?

Until such time as our government officials and organizations can work in a totally non-partisan manner, coming together with governments around the globe, progress will continue in baby steps.

Shut Out Trafficking Event at Florida International University
Courtesy of UNICEF USA
Shut Out Trafficking Event at Florida International University

I asked Mazzio, Shehan and Pasnak-Lapchick what the average person like you and I could do to move our leaders (both regional and national) to act. Here are some of their suggestions:

  • Increase knowledge and awareness. Learn about the root causes.
  • There are so many kids in need of care and services. We need to expand them and make them more readily accessible.
  • See something, say something. If you’re afraid of getting involved, make a report online—anonymous if you wish. Just alert, you do not have to get involved. You can even call NCMEC’s hotline (800-843-5678 or online) or the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) and provide anonymous information.
  • We need a greater focus on prevention and training education—social workers, teachers, healthcare, law enforcement. People are too inclined to treat victims as though they were criminals. They aren’t.
  • Annually, take time to identify the best legislation that might be easier to advocate and to pass. Write to legislators, drop into office, call in by phone, encourage others to do so.
  • 2017 is the year for reauthorization for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Depending on the provisions, some organizations aren’t necessarily advocating for it yet since they haven’t seen a draft of it. People need to follow this process and, provided that relevant agencies approve of the draft, step up and support it.
  • Work at the State level for your safe harbor legislation.
  • Learn about some of the issues by visiting sites like Slavery Footprint.
  • Investigate companies to make sure they do not encourage child/slave labor. You’d be surprised how many companies benefit from these illegal activities.
  • Call your Congressperson or Senator to amend Section 230.
  • Contact the largest donors to the CDT. Consider writing letters to the CEOs of these companies asking them to re-examine and to discuss legislative changes to Section 230, so as to incentivize websites to better protect children from online sex trafficking and other online crimes. The big three are: Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg, CEO. c/o Facebook, 1 Hacker Way, Menlo Park, CA 94025. Google: Sundar Pichai, CEO. c/o Google, 1600 Apitheatre Parkway, Mountain View CA 94043. Microsoft: Satya Nadella, CEO. c/o Microsoft, One Microsoft Way, Redmond WA 98502

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