MUSKEGON, Mich. — Human trafficking is an industry prevalent in the U.S. and around the world. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that, globally, the industry generates $150 billion dollars per year enterprise and exploits 25 million people.
January marks "National Human Trafficking Prevention” month.
While people often immediately think of sex trafficking, both of adults and children, there are a number of ways that people may be mistreated.
According to Interpol, other categories include:
- Trafficking for forced labor, where victims come primarily from developing countries and are held in slavery conditions in a number of jobs like agricultural, mining, or domestic servitude.
- Forced criminal activities, where victims are forced to commit crimes for the benefit of others.
- Trafficking for the removal of organs, which involves taking body parts from victims to be used for other people with medical conditions and benefiting financially from it.
- "People smuggling," which is closely connected to human trafficking. Often, migrants become victims, forced to work in terrible conditions to help pay for passage across borders.
When it comes to trafficking, officials say one thing that's made it a lot easier is the internet, which can connect suspects and buyers and makes victims easier to exploit.
When it comes to preventing trafficking, education is a big component.
That's something the Lakeshore Human Trafficking Task Force is hoping to do, especially when it comes to protecting kids online.
Sara Johnson is the co-chair of the organization. She’s passionate about helping victims of human trafficking and says they're working to prevent more victims.
“To really help them heal, that's our main mission, so they don't have to deal with all these consequences of being trafficked,” said Johnson.
She says their goal is to help victims as much as they can so that they can have a different life, hopefully free of trauma.
But the organization is also trying to get ahead of that potential trauma, reaching out to kids as young as middle school.
“We're in the schools, now we're in individual classrooms, and we're doing assemblies to educate the students,” explained Johnson.
Since September, they’ve been in ten schools. This past week, they visited a school and ended up with ten girls who came forward, saying that they needed help. They weren’t trafficked, but they were vulnerable to trafficking.
Out of the 140 people the Human Trafficking Task Force served last year, 70% of them were trafficked as children. 30% were trafficked under 12 years old.
“This is why we need to be talking to students about this. Because one, they could be a victim, or they could be looking out for their peers too, and they could find some red flags that might be happening, and they could talk to someone so they can intervene,” said Johnson.
Those red flags include:
- Someone trying to get you away from your friends or family
- Bribing you with expensive gifts
- Asking for nude or suggestive photos
- Pushing you past what you’re comfortable doing romantically
Those with the task force say social media is a big concern as a prime window of opportunity for traffickers.
“The different apps that are on the phones, not to accept a friend request from anyone who sends you one. We talk about sexting, we also talk about bullying, we talk about drug addictions and how that can be an entryway into trafficking,” said Johnson.
Tips for staying safe include:
- Only hanging out with friends who respect your personal boundaries
- Introducing your partner to people you trust
- Avoid posting or sending sexually provocative pictures
- Don’t meet anyone offline that you don’t know in person.
“It's happening to those in West Michigan, and it's important for them to be aware, not to be scared, but to be educated so they can do something about it,” said Johnson.
Later this month, a human trafficking community forum will be held at Port City Church in Muskegon. It’s free to attend and will feature a number of speakers, including trafficking service providers and law enforcement. You can find more information here.
Here in Michigan, there is a Human Trafficking Commission that's within the Department of Attorney General. It was created after the Human Trafficking Commission Act was passed in late 2014, with its initial 14 members being appointed the next year.
Among other things, the commission identifies grants that with help with prevention and applies for them when appropriate. They fund research, provide training to people like police officers, prosecutors and court personnel, and collect and analyze trafficking data in Michigan. They also review existing state laws and administrative rules related to human trafficking, and make recommendations for improvement where appropriate.
If you or someone you know needs help, you can call the National Human Trafficking hotline 24-7 at: 1-888-373-7888.