Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a three-part series looking at the problem of human trafficking, its social impact and potential solutions.
When considering sex trafficking, it’s easy to name the impact it has on the victim. The victim is stripped entirely of rights, freedom and humanity. In many sex trafficking cases, women are physically branded with a tattoo, marking them as their pimp’s property.
Women are beaten when they disobey the pimp or try to escape. There are countless reports of victims subjected to emotional abuse, in addition to physical battery and rape. This is the kind of harm that we, as outsiders, unfamiliar with the inner-workings of trafficking, can physically see.
That’s according to Nita Belles, author of “In Our Backyard,” an examination of human trafficking in the United States. However, she added that nothing can compare with the emotional and physical trauma sustained by sex trafficking victims.
“In my previous job, I worked with victims of domestic violence. I saw some pretty horrific domestic violence cases, but nothing compared to what I’ve seen in human trafficking,” she said. “The impact trafficking has on victims is more horrific than someone can possibly understand. The recovery is difficult, but it’s not impossible. I know human trafficking survivors who have gone on to be very productive citizens.”
The less obvious impact is the one trafficking has on the community — both big American cities and small suburban towns. Most Americans don’t even believe trafficking is happening in this country. The longer this misconception lives on, the less that can be done to address it.
Belles said that trafficking is the second largest and fastest growing crime industry in the world, and its success is largely dependent on a lack of awareness by the community.
“By accepting human trafficking or just turning our heads, what we effectively do is put money in the pockets of the traffickers,” Belles said. “All they ask us to do is do nothing — to look away or pretend it isn’t happening.”
The reality is that globally, there are 27 million victims of human trafficking and modern-day slavery. U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-8, who is active in campaigning for legislation to prevent trafficking, said that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across the U.S. border; however, they are not the only victims.
“People think the trafficking victims are foreign-born, but that’s not the case,” Belles said. “A large percentage of the people trafficked in the U.S. are American-born citizens. This is a substantial number of the trafficking victims that are born here in our country.”
It should not be surprising that trafficking exists here in America, in suburbs and big cities alike, especially when considering what a huge financial operation trafficking is. Belles said that $32 billion is spent on trafficking annually.
In her book, Belles writes that trafficking’s presence in America “makes sense if you think about it. Human trafficking follows money. America, being the richest nation in the world, stands to reward human traffickers with some of the highest profits anywhere.”
Financially speaking, human trafficking is a burden on the economy. Because it is a problem that operates so effectively under the radar, it is difficult to pinpoint how much trafficking costs America. However, a 2011 benefit-cost study conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center found that it costs Minnesota’s government more to do nothing about human trafficking than to institute prevention programs.
“Early intervention to avoid sex trading and trafficking of Minnesota’s female youth passes a rigorous benefit-cost test with a return on investment of $34 in benefit for each $1 in cost,” states the report. “Therefore we find that it is in the best interest of Minnesota taxpayers to invest in prevention and early intervention services for runaway and/or homeless adolescent girls in the state who are at highest risk for sex trading and trafficking.”
Nationally, there are between 244,000 and 325,000 American youths at risk for sexual exploitation and sex trafficking every year. Belles said that until the society becomes more aware of trafficking and its wide reach across the country, little can be done to prevent the problem from persisting. The first and most important step is to raise awareness of trafficking and its presence in all corners of the country.
The misconception that trafficking is not a problem in America contributes to prolonging and allowing the expansion of sex trafficking. The presence of the problem impacts society at large, harming even those who are unfamiliar with trafficking and its social ramifications.
Dan Emr, the executive director of Worthwhile Wear, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rehabilitating women who were victims of trafficking, said that the presence of trafficking in the United States directly conflicts with American values.
“It undermines what America is, and it should cause outrage and frustration,” he said. “This is a modern day atrocity; it’s modern slavery. It undermines our values and beliefs as the land of opportunity and the land of freedom. There isn’t freedom if there is a population enslaved.”
Belles echoed Emr’s sentiment, suggesting that, although difficult to quantify, the ramifications of trafficking across America are substantial.
“There are tremendous ramifications in our society, both to the victims subjected to trafficking and our society as a whole, and our culture of ignoring it,” she said. “We cannot claim to have freedom while there is trafficking.”
Follow Erin Weaver on Twitter @ByErinWeaver.
Next week, the Independent will explore some of the potential solutions to the global problem of human trafficking.
Related story: Human trafficking not just a global problem; issue impacts Montgomery, Bucks counties