Defining Human Trafficking

A few weeks ago a good friend of mine was invited to write a paper for a conference to be held at Johns Hopkins University  on the impact of current media coverage on human trafficking.  Because a fresh set of eyes always can catch typos and clarify arguments, I offered to help edit his submission.

While reviewing the first draft, one issue became immediately clear– possibly the biggest impediment to shutting down human trafficking in the United States is the lack of a common definition and understanding amongst the media, the public, and local government agencies of what constitutes human trafficking.  This shortcoming limits the amount of pressure the public puts on politicians and law enforcement to intervene in human trafficking operations, contributes to the continued prosecution of victims rather than traffickers, and allows the persistence of a practice threatening some of the most vulnerable amongst us.

Brett Myers /Youth Radio

Here, I will lay out a few definitions and examples of human trafficking in the United States to contribute to the effort to create a common public understanding of what exactly constitutes human trafficking.

The term human trafficking proves a bit misleading.  Individuals need not be transported to be trafficked, although they may be. Human trafficking can consist of forced servitude, coerced commercial sexual acts or selling sex under any circumstances involving a minor under the age of 18.

In 2000, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act which provided a government-recognized definition of “severe forms of trafficking in persons” in Section 103 of the act:

(8) SEVERE FORMS OF TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS- The term `severe forms of trafficking in persons’ means–

(A) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or

(B) 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.

Organizations working on human trafficking research, reporting, and intervention such as NGOs recognize this definition, but despair the way trafficking is prosecuted and its coverage in the media. Victims are usually prosecuted rather than their traffickers, and too often the public perceptions of trafficking are shaped more by television police dramas than the reality of the practice. Contrary to a common image of a trafficked individual being a foreign female hidden in a basement or storage container and sold into forced labor (manual or sexual,) human trafficking occurs daily amongst many types of Americans in the broad daylight of our busiest cities.

Although the majority of human trafficking worldwide takes place abroad and occurs on an enormous (but poorly measured) scale, trafficking in the U.S. has significant magnitude of its own. Trafficking includes immigrant, citizen, and documented guest worker victims. It includes minors and adults. It includes Asians, Latinos, Europeans, and Americans of every race and color. In fact, a statistic reported by The Polaris Project and often repeated by NGOs and government officials estimates 100,000 to 300,000 American children are trafficked annually. Those numbers reflect only American children. Hundreds of thousands of citizen adults and immigrants of all ages are victimized by traffickers in the U.S. annually.

Brett Myers /Youth Radio

Runaways and children with a lack of parental support at home are amongst the most vulnerable to be exploited and trafficked.  Some are drawn into relationships with pimps, many are kidnapped.  Pimps have been known to recruit children as young as eleven or twelve outside of schools.  The Bay Area’s Youth Radio produced an excellent series on young women being trafficked in Oakland, California last fall.  The story of a 19 year-old the article calls Brittney demonstrates how young Americans at risk become trafficked:

“I got kidnapped when I was 15,” says Brittney. “I decided to cut school one day. I was in Oakland, on Havenscourt and Foothill, and all I heard was, ‘Man go get that girl!’ And one of them came out and dragged me by my hair and he pulled me into the car.”

Brittney was the victim of a so-called guerilla pimp, a person, usually a man, who uses force and fear to traffic women, many of whom are underage. Oakland police estimate a third of teenage girls working in prostitution were abducted and forced onto the streets the way Brittney was.

Brittney says that after she was kidnapped, at least six men gang raped her. She was then driven to Sacramento, where her 32 year old pimp put her out on the street as a prostitute. He took her phone, told her not to talk to anyone but “johns” and had his sister watch her so she wouldn’t run. She was shuttled back and forth to work Oakland’s red light district.

Brittney had been raped as a child by her father.  She was raped by her pimp who impregnated her and beat her, causing a miscarriage. She usually worked twenty hour days.  Her compensation– a single McDonald’s hamburger. Eventually Brittney’s aunt found her working the streets and brought her home.  The police showed up at her door and arrested her for prostitution a few days later.  The story makes no mention of consequences for her pimp.  Brittney ended up in a treatment program, finished high school, and started working two jobs. She now plans to attend college.

While youth sexual exploitation composes just part of the human rights tragedy that is trafficking in the United States, it is important to highlight cases such as Brittney’s because it broadens public understanding of what human trafficking is and how it works in America.

Keep an eye out on media coverage of trafficking in the U.S.. As prosecutions increase and more people learn that trafficking doesn’t occur only over borders halfway across the globe, we can hope our communities make a greater effort to prevent trafficking and bring those who subjugate others to justice.

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