The article I flipped open that day told the story of a 16-year-old girl who had been sold into slavery and trafficked for sex. Preying on her vulnerability, the perpetrator had lured her with the promise of money. Instead, he forced her into prostitution and manipulated her to recruit other teenage girls for his prostitution ring.
When many people think of human trafficking, they think of back alleys and dark brothels in Thailand or eastern European nations. This particular article was in Washingtonian magazine, the girl from an affluent suburb in Northern Virginia, and the luring message delivered via Facebook.
Stretching across the globe, the scourge of human trafficking leaves no country immune – not even the United States. According to the U.S. Department of State, around 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. This does not include the thousands that are bought, sold, smuggled, and sexually exploited within countries, including the United States.
Because of the nature of the crime, human trafficking is difficult to quantify. Victims are “hidden” and much is still unknown about the crime. However, we do know that perpetrators prey on the most vulnerable people. It is estimated that around 300,000 children in the U.S. are at risk of being trafficked, where victims are forced into prostitution, labor, and servitude. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 82% of human trafficking incidents in the U.S. between January 2008 and June 2010 involved allegations of sex trafficking.
Many don’t realize that these crimes are happening to American children every day. The reality is that human trafficking exists in the U.S. and it is not limited to one race, ethnicity, or socio-economic level. Perpetrators recruit their victims on poor street corners of large cities and in cul-de-sacs of affluent suburbs. They find victims on Facebook as well as in shopping malls. They use physical locations in addition to the Internet. In fact, Internet child pornography is one of the fastest growing crimes in America, increasing at an average of 150% per year.
The impacts of human trafficking are both devastating and far reaching. It fuels organized crime. It increases health risks. It facilitates the illegal movement of immigrants across borders. And it brings enormous emotional suffering and trauma to the victims and their families.
However, there is hope. Over the past few years, the issue of human trafficking in the United States has become more widely discussed, and we've seen forward movement towards eliminating human trafficking. Anti-trafficking advocates work daily on developing strategies to address modern slavery both internationally and here at home. Federal efforts have increased, as well. An FBI-led sex trafficking sting carried out in late July led to the recovery of 105 sexually exploited children across the U.S. Most children rescued were between the ages of 13 and 17 – some of them as young as nine. The operation led to the arrest of 150 perpetrators.
These are small but promising successes. However, there is much more to be done. Each face, each name, and each statistic related to human trafficking represents a person in desperate need of help. Behind each statistic is a perpetrator that must be brought to justice.
Protecting children has always been a priority of mine. Trafficking and exploitation of any human being – and especially children – is an affront to human dignity. In keeping with American values of freedom, human rights, and the rule of law, we as Americans have an opportunity to fight this injustice.
As a member of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, I am working to strengthen anti-trafficking efforts here at home by bringing relief to victims and justice to perpetrators through the legislative process. The mission of the Commission is to promote, defend, and advocate internationally recognized human rights norms in a nonpartisan manner, both inside and outside of Congress. The eradication of human trafficking is an unquestionably worthy cause, and one area where Democrats and Republicans are finding common ground. Last year, I cosponsored and supported the bipartisan, bicameral Child Protection Act (H.R. 6063) to increase protections for innocent children against exploitation and to bring their abusers to justice. The President signed the bill into law at the end of last year.
Our nation faces a multitude of issues and many of the challenges are plagued by partisan gridlock. However, we should always make the protection of our children a priority. No child should ever be subjected to such heinous crimes. Not on our watch.