CLEVELAND — January is a time to start anew. But January is also a time to remember some of our community’s most vulnerable individuals, as it is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. According to the Ohio Department of Health, human trafficking is “one of the fastest-growing criminal industries in the world,” with more than $35 billion illegally acquired annually. ODH says that cases have been reported in every state and that Ohio has ranked as high as fifth among all states in total reported human trafficking cases.
You may ask, what exactly is human trafficking? The textbook definition is the exploitation of a person through force, fraud or coercion, and the most common types are sex and labor trafficking. Sex trafficking is when sex is exchanged for something the individual needs or wants, such as food, shelter, money or drugs by way of physical or emotional force, manipulation or false promises for a better way of life, education or glamour. Labor trafficking is when individuals are forced to work for little to no pay, and sometimes there is an intersection between labor and sex trafficking.
While these definitions give a glimpse into what the issue is, it doesn’t explain why traffickers decide to force someone to do these things. The answer? It’s all about power, control and financial gain. Traffickers exploit individuals’ trust and make false promises and inflict severe and long-term physical and psychological trauma for their own financial gain.
Human trafficking thrives in the shadows of our community, where survivors feel unseen. However, survivors actually live in the open in the same communities in which they are being exploited.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made those shadows bigger and darker. People have lost their power, control and financial stability, so we fear that human trafficking is on the rise and survivors are not being seen or heard.
While teenagers are especially vulnerable, people of any age, gender, sexual orientation or immigration status are targets for human trafficking. Often, those who have experienced a previous sexual assault are susceptible, as well as individuals who are homeless, and those who have been in the juvenile justice and foster-care systems. It impacts females predominantly, but males are also trafficked. Human trafficking can occur anywhere.
It’s a crime that’s hard to detect, even if it’s happening right in front of you. Part of this is because victims themselves often don’t recognize that they’re being trafficked, as their basic needs are being met by their perpetrator.
If individuals being trafficked don’t necessarily know it’s happening to them, how can you tell? Here are some common characteristics for those being trafficked:
- Appear to be disconnected from family, friends and other relationships
- Show a sudden or dramatic change in behavior
- Seem disoriented, confused or show signs of mental or physical abuse
- Exhibit bruises
- Give the appearance they’re being coached on what to say
- Lack personal possessions and are in unstable living situations
To help survivors of human trafficking, Cleveland Rape Crisis Center (CRCC) has a dedicated hotline available 24/7 at 855-431-7827. Since launching in 2013, the hotline’s use has steadily increased each year as people have become better at identifying human trafficking.
Early this year, CRCC will also be opening a human trafficking drop-in center to provide a safe place for those who have been or are currently being trafficked. Here, survivors will be able to access services at no cost, including individual counseling, case management, assistance with examining legal options or navigating the criminal justice process, and support groups. There are also a number of classes available, including topics like healthy relationships, finances, job training, education opportunities, parenting and more. The drop-in center will be located at 10450 Superior Avenue in Cleveland.
Together, we can help those in our community avoid and escape the trap of human trafficking.
Keyna Smith is director of anti-human trafficking and advocacy at Cleveland Rape Crisis Center.
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