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Modern slavery in Virginia
Friday, February 4, 2011

Modern slavery in Virginia

Human trafficking is a growing problem internationally and locally.

For many Americans, slavery is seen as a long-dead and despised part of history. It might seem unthinkable that human trafficking — so-called modern slavery — is quickly becoming one of the highest-ranked crimes across the globe, even in our own backyard.

According to statistics from the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking organization working in the United States and Japan, human trafficking is found in countries all over the world, including all 50 states. Internationally, there are an estimated 27 million victims. The total yearly profits generated by the industry are more than $32 billion.

Human trafficking crimes fall into two categories: labor trafficking and sex trafficking. According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, labor trafficking is defined as “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.” Sex trafficking is defined as “a commercial sex act … induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.”

Labor trafficking victims are often put to work in domestic fields as nannies or housekeepers or in small businesses as landscapers, industrial cleaners, construction workers or hospitality workers. They can sometimes be found in magazine or flower sales crews or as farm and factory workers.

Sex trafficking victims are forced to work in the adult entertainment industry at gentlemen’s clubs and escort services, or in residential brothel-type settings. They are commonly advertised on Internet sites like Craigslist.

Victims are unpaid or underpaid and manipulated by force, fraud or coercion. Often, victims are subjected to violence or threats. Sometimes they are physically restrained, sleeping in cages or behind locked doors. Other times, the only chains are psychological. Many trafficking victims don’t realize they are victims and never seek help. Instead, they live in fear and shame, with no way out.

A global crime that’s coming here

Michelle Rickert is a professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg and the founder of the Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking. She believes that one of the major misconceptions about human trafficking is that it is not a domestic issue — that it doesn’t happen in the United States and that all victims are of foreign descent.

“While it is an overseas problem, it’s a problem that is spilling over to here,” Rickert said.

According to the U.S. government, an estimated 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the country every year. Additionally, thousands of U.S. citizens are trafficked within our borders, including an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 domestic minors who are prostituted yearly.

Statistics on local cases of human trafficking are tough to find since crimes are difficult to prove and can be lumped in with abduction, prostitution or fraud and embezzlement charges. As a result, police departments in Prince William County, Manassas, Falls Church, Fairfax County and Alexandria do not keep human trafficking statistics.

“It’s a crime in the shadows,” said James Dold, policy counsel of Polaris Project. “The numbers are hard to come by simply because we don’t know the scope.” The National Human Trafficking Hotline, run by the Polaris Project, gives a snapshot of the growing problem in Northern Virginia. Since the hotline began in December 2007, there have been more than 350 calls from the Virginia area, 20 percent of which dealt with tips about possible trafficking situations, calls from victims and social service providers working with victims. In addition, the Polaris Project has provided direct services to an estimated 300 human trafficking victims in the Washington, D.C., metro area since 2004.

While these statistics are subject to change and are not a comprehensive report on the scope of human trafficking in Virginia, Dold said they provide "a very limited snapshot of what we’ve seen.”

Reasons for the increase in local cases could be nearby international airports and the Interstate-95 corridor as well as spillover from Maryland and Washington, where anti-trafficking laws are stronger and easier to enforce. In Virginia, there is no comprehensive trafficking statute. Anti-trafficking advocates are pushing for such a law, but in the meantime they are proposing bills that change and expand current legislation bit by bit to better protect trafficking victims.

A cross-party alliance of legislators from the state have been working together to bring attention to trafficking bills, including Delegates Adam Ebbin, Vivian Watts, Barbara Comstock, Tim Hugo, Mark Keam, Kaye Kory, David Bulova and Sen. Stephen Newman.

Comstock is a Catholic who splits her time between St. Luke and St. John the Beloved parishes in McLean. She credits Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf for bringing trafficking to her attention, but she says her faith also has played a role in her opposition to the crime.

“It’s a human rights issue,” she said. “Certainly the suffering involved with these women, it’s hard to believe. It’s modern-day slavery.”

Bills planned for Virginia’s 2011 General Assembly session include changes to the terminology in abduction statutes to encompass more trafficking cases, new requirements to provide social services to trafficking victims, and a policy that would require the national human trafficking hotline phone number to be posted in all adult entertainment venues.

Dold said the proposed legislation changes would close the loopholes in current laws to make them stronger and ensure traffickers can be prosecuted more easily. The Polaris Project also is working to educate law enforcement officials and social service agencies to raise awareness of the crime and ensure that officials can properly identify trafficking victims and enforce the laws.

Recently, President Barack Obama proclaimed January to be Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Additionally, the Virginia House of Delegates and the Senate signed a resolution declaring Jan. 11 Global Human Trafficking Awareness Day in Virginia.

What the Church says

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) takes a strong stand against human trafficking and has formed a committee on migration to call attention to the crime and assist victims.

The USCCB provides technical training to social service and law enforcement agencies and religious communities on how to handle trafficking cases. In a joint project with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the USCCB provides aid to trafficking victims across the country.

In its document, “On Human Trafficking,” the committee cites Church teaching about slavery. During Vatican II, the Church called slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, and working conditions where people are treated as mere tools for profits “infamies” and “an affront to fundamental values … values rooted in the very nature of the human person.”

Pope Benedict XVI spoke out against human trafficking in the 2006 annual statement on migration, entitled, “Migrations: A Sign of the Times.” Pope John Paul II also deplored human trafficking, calling it “a shocking offense against human dignity and a grave violation of fundamental human rights.”

Christopher Ramos is associate director of the Virginia Catholic Conference (VCC). In 2009, the VCC backed a bill that would expand the terminology regarding abduction to include trafficking crimes. Ramos attended the signing ceremony when it passed. He believes the Church has a valuable perspective on the fight against human trafficking.

“We have hospitals, we have social services, we have charities and we’re international. That gives us a very unique voice on this issue because as a Church, we do address it and encounter it from all sides,” Ramos said. “We’re talking about forced labor — oftentimes of children, many times in the sex trade. The reasons we should stop it are kind of straightforward.”

How to fight back

Even though the problem is huge, there are still things Catholics can do to fight human trafficking.

“Don’t get paralyzed,” said Sara Pomeroy, founder of the Richmond Justice Initiative, which focuses on fighting human trafficking in Richmond. “We just encourage people to think not of the 27 million (trafficking victims worldwide) but of the one they can help.”

Dold encourages citizens to pay attention to their surroundings and report suspected trafficking activities using the hotline.

Another way to help fight trafficking is to become aware of the issue and educate others. Rickert said people should read books and online information; lobby legislators for change; and volunteer time and energy to anti-trafficking organizations.

“Everyone has gifts and talents,” Rickert said. “No matter what your job is, if you are aware of what’s going on, you can make a difference in this fight.”

The USCCB suggests Catholics inform each other about the realities of human trafficking and work to assist dioceses and local governments in helping survivors. Ramos said Catholics should work to make local parishes places of comfort for those in need.

“There’s the idea of Church as hope, as a place where people can come for help. Make it a welcoming environment, making sure that if people come to the parishes, they can get help,” Ramos said. “Look for opportunities to be that beacon of hope and that place of refuge for people in need of assistance.”

National Human Trafficking Hotline

If you or someone you know is being forced to engage in any activity and cannot leave, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888/373-7888. The hotline is anonymous and confidential and available toll-free 24 hours a day.

How to help

To find out more about the Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking, e-mail[email protected].

For information about current legislation involving human trafficking, go to polarisproject.org.


Paid for by Friends of Barbara Comstock.