Many readers are now familiar with the name Jeffrey Epstein. Thanks in large part to the laser-focused investigative journalism of Julie K. Brown from the Miami Herald, Epstein, a wealthy former hedge fund manager, was recently arrested on sex trafficking charges. The total number of victims is not yet known, but in 2008 investigators had identified 36 minors who Epstein allegedly abused and molested, forcing them to perform sex acts for money.
Many more women have come forward since that time to say that they, too, were victimized by Epstein. This case is shining a light on the often-invisible crime of sex trafficking, just as the United Nations prepares to uplift the plight of trafficked persons around the world on World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on July 30th.
In the United States, sex trafficking is defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 as inducing commercial sex acts by force, fraud, or coercion; and stipulates that anyone under the age of 18 induced to perform commercial sex acts is a victim of human trafficking. Further, the TVPA also defined labor trafficking 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.” The United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has a similar definition, though without creating a specific distinction between sex and labor trafficking or any age stipulations.
Indeed, many labor trafficking survivors have also been trafficked for sex, and survivors of both forms of trafficking have typically experienced severe abuse, including domestic violence and sexual assault; per Freedom House USA, “[t]here is a common misconception that sexual violence occurs only in sex trafficking…the unfortunate truth is that sexual violence occurs in almost every type of trafficking situation including the commercial sex industry, servile marriages, and in cases of forced labor.” Survivors of human trafficking are dealing with complex trauma and living in a constant state of fear.
The scale of human trafficking around the world is staggering; the UNODC has detected approximately 225,000 victims since 2003. In the United States, 45,308 suspected trafficking cases have been reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline since 2007, operated by the Polaris Project.
These numbers do not tell the full story, in part because there are many different stakeholders collecting data on trafficking using a variety of systems and methodologies; but also because trafficking is an underreported crime.
Survivors are often too scared to go to local authorities, if they have any means or opportunity to escape their traffickers at all, fearing they will be charged with a crime (such as prostitution). Traffickers prey on vulnerable people, such as runaways, homeless youth, immigrants, and people living amongst armed conflict; people with limited resources and often no social or familial safety net to rely on. Women and girls are especially vulnerable to exploitation, according to the UNODC.
A sustained global response is necessary to identify survivors, connect them to wrap-around services, and bring perpetrators to justice. This is what the UN’s Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons hopes to achieve.
One component of the plan is a fund which is meant to facilitate “effective, on-the-ground assistance and protection to victims of trafficking, through grants to specialized NGOs.” In the United States, the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) and Administration for Children and Families (ACF) also make funding available to organizations combatting human trafficking and providing services to survivors.
The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – home to the ACF – runs a campaigned called “Look Beneath the Surface”, aimed at helping to identify survivors and get them connected to help through the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Everyone should be aware of the red flags associated with human trafficking – it is likely happening in your backyard.
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Jean Henningsen is a nonprofit leader with over a decade of experience overseeing programs that help low-income individuals and families access critical resources to set them on a path towards financial stability. She has taken on a range of responsibilities, including grants management, partnership development, and staff supervision. Her robust skill set includes planning, writing, public speaking, budget development, and talent management. She is passionate about empowering women and girls to reach their full potential. She enjoys reading, baking, volunteering, traveling with her husband, and relaxing with her cat.