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March 23, 2016

Myth: Human Trafficking Only Happens Abroad

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By Meghan Hampsey

Human trafficking occurs in cities all across the United States. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), developed economies including North America, the European Union, Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland account for 1.5 million human trafficking victims, or 7 percent of victims worldwide.

Domestic traffickers often target international victims using preexisting personal connections abroad. In the Georgia domestic servitude case United States v. Bello, Bidemi Bello, a Nigerian-born U.S. citizen, held two Nigerian women in domestic slavery for four years. Bello used her familial connections in Nigeria to recruit the two women under the pretense that they would be paid and allowed to go to school. Once they were brought to Georgia, the victims were physically abused, isolated, and made to work hours on end providing childcare and doing housework, for no pay.

In the Michigan forced labor case United States v. Maksimenko, traffickers used personal connections in Europe to recruit victims. More than 12 women were recruited from Eastern Europe with promises that they would be given well-paid jobs once they arrived in the United States. Instead, they were forced to work as exotic dancers at Detroit strip clubs for 12 hours a day, six days a week.

The Maksimenko case involved manipulation of the J-1 visa program. The J-1 Visa Visitor Exchange Program was created in an effort to increase diversity and cultural exchange. However, the 2012 State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report stated, “NGOs noted vulnerabilities in the J-1 Summer Work Travel program that can be indicators for human trafficking, including reports of fraudulent job offers, inappropriate jobs, [and] job cancellations on arrival…. Vulnerabilities that are common indicators of human trafficking, [include] threats, intimidating practices, and irregular pay.” The H-2A and H-2B temporary work visa programs and DV “Diversity” visa program are often similarly exploited in order to recruit foreign victims into slavery in the United States.

Domestic traffickers also target American victims, as in United States v. Traylor, a California sex trafficking case in which young female victims were recruited through social media and at popular youth hangouts. The traffickers, mostly members of the Oceanside Crips gang, targeted poor and vulnerable women and girls, baiting them with promises of luxurious lifestyles and romantic relationships. Gang members used websites like Myspace, Facebook, Craigslist, and Backpage to advertise victims for “adult services.”

Gang-related sex trafficking is a growing enterprise in the United States. In Traylor there were 39 defendants and more than 35 victims, and it took an 18-month multi-agency investigation for perpetrators to be indicted.

Victims of human trafficking often interact with bystanders who are aware or become suspicious of the exploitation. During their captivity, the Bello victims came into contact with more than ten bystanders who failed to help them, including neighbors, staff at Bello’s son’s preschool, and Bello’s family and friends. Bystanders noticed bruises on the victims; some even helped the victims photograph and document their wounds. Yet they did not to contact the police.

The Maksimenko victims worked in a public-facing industry, in view of club owners and patrons from 2007 to 2011. One victim did eventually manage to escape with the help of a patron, four years after she was recruited. In both cases, numerous bystanders ignored or failed to notice the common indicators of trafficking, including evidence of physical abuse and obvious signs that victims were not in control of their own money or immigration documents.

Bello, Maksimenko, and Traylor demonstrate the prevalence and diversity of human trafficking cases in the United States. Greater public awareness is necessary to incentivize and encourage bystanders to report suspected cases, and increased resources are critical to more effectively detecting, investigating, and prosecuting both sex and labor trafficking. It’s not a far-off problem of undeveloped countries, but one that must be dealt with in our own backyard.