The phrase “human trafficking” can conjure up terrifying images of teenage girls being snatched up at the local mall— a problematic misconception about the realities of human trafficking. Bridgette Carr, director of the University of Michigan Law Human Trafficking Clinic, explains that “buying into this type of narrative is harming those who are actual victims of trafficking” because it leads society to believe that victims who don’t match this profile are to blame for choices they made that led to trafficking.
Human trafficking, which is considered to be modern-day slavery, is “the recruitment, transportation, harboring, or receipt of people for the purposes of a commercial sex act, involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.”
The increasing prevalence of trafficking worldwide gave rise to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which was a federal law implemented in 2000, intended to penalize human traffickers with international ramifications. The passage of the Act has since given way to the creation of additional state and local laws to help fight against trafficking. While human trafficking includes both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, many people improperly use the phrase human trafficking synonymously with sex trafficking. Labor trafficking, which is a larger issue, is often glossed over in the general media. Carr explains, “It’s easier to talk about sex trafficking because we think we’re not a part of it, but the reality is we’re all part of supply chains that are created by exploited labor.”
The International Labor Organization and Walk Free Foundation shared a report in 2017 that revealed an estimated 24.9 million people worldwide are victims of trafficking. 16 million (64%) were exploited for labor, 4.8 million (19%) were sexually exploited, and 4.1 million (17%) were exploited in state-imposed, forced labor.
While trafficking is occurring within our own communities, Carr emphasizes that there are no prevalent numbers available for Washtenaw County. With garnered experience from working on human trafficking cases for more than a decade, she shares that trafficking exists “anywhere someone can have power over someone else’s vulnerabilities.” Currently, a bill is being introduced to “document the scope of human trafficking in America” to better understand how to combat this issue on a national level.
Targets of trafficking
The most prevalent trafficking victims are, as Carr defines, “vulnerable people who are exploited for profit.”
Traffickers identify vulnerabilities and target people that they think won’t be missed, sometimes referring to them as “disposable people.” While a young, unsuspecting woman could be taken from a parking lot, the real targets of trafficking are the homeless, foreign nationals, and foster care children: often those who have been sexually abused or subjected to drug abuse.
It is important to simultaneously communicate topics of safety with children and teens for times when they are alone, in both real and virtual environments, as well as teach our children how not to live in fear, through love and support, which are natural barriers against trafficking.
Recently, a lawsuit has been filed locally against local hotels, claiming that management turned a blind eye to signs of trafficking. Reader comments to Current’s online article expressed disbelief, questioning if they were really victims since they didn’t ask for help from the hotel employees.
Carr states, “sometimes the employees at a hotel go have sex with my clients during their breaks,” adding that it’s no surprise, then, that calling for help would do no good. “People will often judge the choices of sex trafficking victims, which really frustrates me,” Carr shares. “If you’ve been sexually assaulted by age three, the fact that someone now wants to make some money off you and give you part of that money to have a roof over your head and some food every day doesn’t actually sound like a bad deal.” Victims of trafficking sometimes return to their captors because “that’s the currency of their life.” Carr further explains, “Even if I had a limitless pot of money, I don’t have a lot of places for my clients to go. Not enough support places exist.”
Human trafficking is a complex issue that involves underlying societal problems, which can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed or hopeless. However, community members can make a difference. Carr proposes, “If you want to fight trafficking, fight homelessness. Think about domestic violence shelters in your community. If we are working on issues of homelessness, access to quality education, and reforming the foster care system in our communities, then we are fighting human trafficking.”
Carr also reminds us to recognize that “no exploitive industry can exist if there aren’t customers.” We need to have open and honest conversations about how our consumer choices are aiding labor trafficking. Global movements such as Fair Trade are taking action to ensure workers are compensated fairly.
Finally, it’s important to include males in the conversation. “We need to be talking to our sons about the commercial sex industry,” shares Carr. “It’s ironic that schools and youth organizations ask me to talk to their girls before spring break. It’s the boys I want to speak with.”
Michigan Law Human Trafficking Clinic: The first of its kind
Bridgette Carr founded the University of Michigan Law Human Trafficking Clinic in 2009, the first clinic of its kind in the nation. The clinic trains law students and provides free legal services to victims of human trafficking, regardless of age, gender, or national origin.
Any current Michigan Law School student can enroll in the clinic or apply to be an intern. As one student shared, “It’s the most meaningful thing that I’ve done in law school.”
For more resources about human trafficking, please visit law.umich.edu/clinical/humantraffickingclinic and click on “What is Human Trafficking?”
Combat Human Trafficking: Volunteer In Your Community
To help get to the root issue of human trafficking, consider volunteering your time at one of these local organizations.