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Human trafficking, modern-day slavery, widespread in U.S.
Ceres Police Chief Art deWerk - photo by Contributed to the Courier

January is the nationally-declared month of slavery and human trafficking awareness and prevention. These kinds of crimes are among the most offensive and cruel forms of harm that can be perpetrated on any human. It is also one of the fastest growing crimes both in the United States and internationally as a result of a world that has become increasingly mobile and one where nations have difficulty managing their borders. And along with these problems is the fact that is a highly profitable business where demand is high and detection is difficult.

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. It is among the worst crimes and forms of torture perpetrated on its victims. The enslavement of children and adults is accomplished through coercion, force, fear or fraud. Women and children represent an estimated 80 percent of the nearly one million people who are enslaved for various reasons worldwide. Many of these victims are compelled to perform labor, while others are forced into the sex worker industry. Children are often used for child pornography and sex with adults, as is also the case for women. Adult males are also victims of the human trafficking industry, where they are likely used as drug runners, to carry out other crimes, and they are also used for forced labor.

A common way people become enslaved is through fraud and misrepresentation. The victims are often people living in difficult situations and who are seeking ways to escape serious poverty or other problems of their lives. The human traffickers lure them with promises of a new life and high living standards. And once the victims arrive at their destination, the criminals take complete control of their lives leaving the impression that there is no way out. They are threatened with violence against their families back home; sometimes they are told that if they fail to cooperate that they will be reported to the authorities for being in the country illegally along with other tactics that leave them feeling helpless. A favorite tactic is to force the victim to partake in a crime and then threaten to turn them over to the police if they refuse to continue carrying out the will of their captors. Debt bondage is another tactic commonly employed with the traffickers refusing to "release" the victims until they pay off what is owed. It is usually impossible to pay off such debt, since the criminals create ongoing charges for food and lodging while the victim is held against their will.

Human trafficking victims are plentiful and exist in most all communities; however, their presence is very difficult to detect - which is what the criminals count on. And not only are they difficult to detect, once they come in contact with authorities or others who might be able to help them, they remain quiet out of fear of being beaten or having their families harmed. It is an extremely difficult situation for them.

Victims of human trafficking need to learn that as human trafficking victims, they have a broad range of rights accorded to them by virtue of their victim status. Even if a victim is here illegally, the government will not focus on their immigration status when they come forward to report the human trafficking activity. Rather, the priority is to go after the criminals that brought them here and the ones that use them as slaves. It is likely that the person coming forward is not the only person being victimized by their captors.

None of the following, by themselves, mean that a person is a victim of human trafficking. But there are some things to look for that may provide clues that an enslavement situation exists. Persons who live and work in the same building may be victims. The conditions in which they exist, such as the overall cleanliness and comfort level of their surroundings, the person's physical condition, and the absence of access to medical care, computers, cell phones and the outside world are all signs of human trafficking.

Often times, the traffickers use security measures to manage people coming and going from the location to ensure the victim cannot escape. They also monitor who is on the premises. Victims may be afraid to speak to anyone from the outside, their captors tend to speak for their victims in public situations, never leaving them alone for such things as doctor appointments, and victims do not usually carry their own cash or identification - those things are kept by their captors. The best rule of thumb is to call the authorities when in doubt or when anything suspicious is observed. To do otherwise can leave the victims in a life-long state of servitude, enslavement or worse.

Human trafficking is a dark side of the human existence; the underbelly of society where few people, other than the victims and their captors, go. One would think that our society has moved far beyond this subhuman behaviour, but with hundreds of thousands of people presently being victimized, it shows we have a long way to go. We must do all that we can to shut down this awful, inhumane industry that is operating right here in our own communities.