The title says it all: Human trafficking is the equivalent to modern day slavery. The topic of human trafficking is a dark and an uncomfortable issue; but, unless we are willing to have an honest discussion about it, the problem will persist.

Every year human traffickers generate billions of dollars in profits from victimizing millions of people in the United States. As far as organized crime, it is reported to be one of the largest transnational crimes─second only to narcotics trafficking. It is estimated traffickers exploit 20.9 million victims around the world and approximately 1.9 million in North America alone. Because of the myths revolving around human trafficking, and a lack of awareness for the indicators, human trafficking remains an underreported crime. There are also misconceptions about what human trafficking actually is, even though news stories are bringing greater awareness to this issue.

Human trafficking is not the same as human smuggling. Human smuggling is based on movement, with consent, and is a crime against a country’s border. Human trafficking is based on exploitation and is a crime against a PERSON. Roughly 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year.

Approximately 80% of trafficking involves sexual exploitation, with over half of those victims being children and 19% involving labor exploitation. Human trafficking exists due to the most basic model of any business: supply and demand. In the case of human trafficking, the demand is for cheap labor, services, and commercial sex. As with most criminals, the traffickers have the perception that there is a low risk of getting caught. The lack of reporting, low community awareness, few resources for those who have been victimized, and societal blame toward the victims themselves are just a few of the factors which have sustained this perception. Along with the low risk comes high profits for those traffickers. When individuals are willing to buy sex they, in turn, create a demand. This demand creates an avenue for the traffickers to exploit adults and children, thereby creating a high profit margin with low production costs. Therefore, the traffickers see their product as a means to an end instead of what they are ... HUMANS.

Few crimes resonate with citizens like crimes against children do. Human trafficking, unfortunately, preys on the most precious and vulnerable of our society─our kids. The average age of a victim of human trafficking is 12 to 14 years old; children who are in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. That is an alarming statistic. The overwhelming majority of these children have not reached puberty. As disturbing as it is, one of the reasons for this is the fact there is a high demand and large market for commercial sex with young victims. The “recruiters” exploit the natural vulnerability of children as a means of luring victims into their web of a life of brutality and enslavement. More than half of the victims are recruited by strangers; however, 46% are recruited by someone the victim knows. The traffickers use the phone, Internet, shopping malls, and after school programs to contact their victims. Approximately 80% of those trafficked are women and girls, and many of those are runaways who have been sexually abused as children.

There are currently few reported cases of human trafficking in Missouri. Nationally, which includes the District of Columbia, we rank in the lower third of reported cases. However, Missouri does have a major role in human trafficking in the United States. Many victims travel through Missouri via Interstates 44, 55, and 70. Missouri is also the home of two international airports, located in Kansas City and St. Louis, and we have several successful, professional sports teams and events, which draw millions of people from all over the world each year.

So, now you know the problem. But, what can you do here in Missouri to help combat such a global issue? There are many things citizens can do to help. The best way to help is have a heightened sense of awareness regarding the people around you. We are a busy society and oftentimes we overlook or look past identifiers that could lead to a victim’s freedom. Taking the time to observe people around you during your hectic day is the first step. The identifiers listed below are a few of the possible indicators a trafficked victim might exhibit:

  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid.
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement.
  • Avoids eye contact.
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture.
  • Appears to be malnourished,
  • Has few or no personal possessions,
  • Is not in control of his/her own money, or no bank account,
  • Is not allowed to speak for themselves. (A third party may insist on being present and/or translating.)
  • Traveling with several young females while walking behind an older male who looks like he’s in charge.
  • If you approach or say hello, he/she looks to a male first before speaking to you.
  • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or in which city he/she is.
  • Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story.

Please do not confront the trafficker yourself. If you are a victim, or suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, contact local law enforcement and provide as much information as possible. You can also contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline number at 1-888-373-7888, which can be accessed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year in 200 languages. The NHTRC is a nongovernmental organization which has valuable resources available to those victimized by human trafficking. The next step is to educate yourself and those in your area of influence about human trafficking. Traffickers thrive on communities being unaware of their criminal enterprise. The more knowledge the citizens of Missouri have about human trafficking the better. Together, we can change the traffickers’ perception regarding the risk of being arrested. Together, we can ensure human traffickers are identified, arrested, and prosecuted. With communities, and law enforcement working together we can put an end to human trafficking and provide hope to those victims who are enslaved.

Contributed by Sergeant Brent Bernhardt with the Missouri State Highway Patrol