Op-Ed: Human-Trafficking Solutions Are Here if We Look for Them

The first step in eliminating the global scourge of slavery and forced labor is to open up our eyes to the human trafficking problem.

human trafficking

A 16-year-old girl sits inside a protection home on the outskirts of New Delhi, November 9, 2012. Working as a maid, she was rescued by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), a charity that frees victims of human trafficking and bonded labor. (Photo: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters)

I am a nurse, an aid worker, and an author, and I like to think of myself as well read and well-informed, and yet human trafficking is an issue that until recently has danced only peripherally in my thoughts and, sadly, I am not alone.

Human trafficking is an issue that has remained as hidden as its victims, as unlikely a dinner topic as cockroaches in the kitchen. At least the cockroaches are universally known and despised. The same cannot be said for the issue of trafficking. Its ugly maneuverings and unwitting victims are as mysterious to us as the darkest recesses of the moon.

When I first began to research human trafficking for my most recent novel, The Bracelet, I was shocked at the extensive global and local reach of this insidious and cruel business. Though I’ve worked in refugee settings around the world and have been aware of the need for protection of separated women and children during refugee crises, I had no idea of the ongoing risk to those most vulnerable among us, and I had no inkling of the shocking truth behind the numbers and facts.

MORE: 21 Million People Around the World Work in Forced Labor; One Day to Fix It Is Not Enough

The harsh reality is almost mind-numbing. Human trafficking may in fact be the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. The U.N. Population Fund recently reported that it was the third most lucrative illegal trade, surpassed only by drugs and arms trading. With estimated earnings of 32 billion tax-free dollars per year, trading in human cargo is a veritable goldmine for the traffickers. For the victims, it is a rabbit hole of misery and pain.

The number of victims, those to whom innocence and freedom have been promised and then snatched away, is staggering. An estimated 700,000 to 4 million people are trafficked each year, but those numbers may be much higher. Because of the elusive and secretive nature of trafficking, exact counts will never be known. But each number represents one person who is lost and alone and afraid. As we sit in our comfortable homes, it is almost beyond imagining how someone can be so desperate as to sell herself or be sold into a life of veritable slavery. But desperation is not an exclusive club. Despair is everywhere that governments are complicit and corrupt, that earning prospects are bleak, that poverty has been handed down from generation to generation. That widespread sense of dire prospects provides the perfect hunting grounds for wily traffickers.

There is a certain risk in seeing evil everywhere. Still, the evil exists, and there is perhaps greater risk in looking away, in assuming someone else will know what to do.

When I initially read the Polaris Project stories and statistics—powerful testimonials from people who had survived and escaped the cycle of trafficking and forced labor—my inclination was to view everyone through the hazy lens of suspicion. I seemed to see victims everywhere.

But, like any untrained observer, I was not sure where the victims were, and I was even less sure of how to help them. I did have something of an advantage as a nurse: The requirement that I ask my patients if they feel safe, if they are free from threats and harm.

Once I’d read the trafficking numbers, my question became are you really safe? Is there any way I can help?

No one has whispered yet that she is in need of rescue, but my questions, and my suspicion—which hovers at the periphery of my thoughts—present a conundrum for me. There is a certain risk in seeing evil everywhere. Still, the evil exists, and there is perhaps greater risk in looking away, in assuming someone else will know what to do.

Instead, we have to somehow hone our senses to find the people who are crying for help, and even those who are not, for though their screams are silent, their fears are real, and we can make a start with a few simple steps:

  1. Stay informed—visit the Polaris Project for valuable information and resources.
  2. Get involved—volunteer or learn how you can help at Not for Sale campaign or Courtney’s House.
  3. Help to spread the word by posting or tweeting a link to this article on Facebook or Twitter.
  4. Be aware of the people in your surroundings—if you keep your eyes and your heart open, you may be the link to someone's freedom.

Human trafficking is utterly repulsive. It should have already spurred demonstrations in the streets, and a resolve to rid the world of this hideous crime. Until that happens, I hope you’ll join me in keeping an open mind and clear view so that victims might recognize in us a gentle heart and a helping hand. And someday, we’ll all look back and say remember when . . .

Where do you think you might be most likely to recognize a person working in a forced-labor situation? Name the hotspots in COMMENTS.

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