Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation

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Human-Trafficking-1The FBI’s recent liberation of 105 children and arrest of 150 pimps in 76 cities across the United States adds to the number of successful rescues conducted under Operation Cross Country, a joint effort operation among the FBI, Department of Justice, and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children aimed at combating child sex trafficking.  According to UNICEF, child trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of children for the purpose of exploitation.”  Almost all female, the recently rescued victims ranged in age from 13 to 17 and were prostituted in locations such as casinos, motels, and truck stops as well as on the internet through social media outlets and online advertisements.  Beginning in 2003, raids executed under Operation Cross Country have led to the successful rescue of more than 2,700 children.  While rescues such as these continue to constitute a step in the right direction, the secret and underground nature of the human trafficking industry create an extraordinary and challenging problem to combat.  Generating a profit of approximately $32 billion per year, the vast amounts of money to be made in the trade present incentives for both criminals, who want to maximize their profits through elusive avenues, as well as for law enforcement officials who want to rescue the victims and punish their captors.

Regarded as a form of “modern day slavery,” children in the trafficking industry are forced into labor and prostitution against their will.  According to the FBI, sex trafficking is the fastest growing area of organized crime and the third largest type of organized crime in the world.  Out of an approximate 20.9 million victims of human trafficking around the world, UNICEF estimates around two million of them to be children.  Furthermore, the U.S. State Department estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 individuals are purchased and sold across international lines and borders every year, with more than 70% of victims being female and half being children.

Human traffickers and pimps tend to prey on vulnerable youth, making runaway and homeless children particularly at risk for becoming victims of the trade.  The United States Justice Department estimates that approximately 450,000 children run away from home each year and moreover, the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Throwaway Children states one out of every three children that runs away is lured into sex trafficking within 48 hours of leaving their home.  In addition to domestic victims, a large number of international human trafficking victims are brought to the United States every year.  The State Department asserts that most international victims come here from Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Central America.  The staggering statistics combined with horrific details of the trade make the demons inherent in the human trafficking industry especially apparent and personally, the issue hits even closer to home for me as Texas has become regarded as the United States hub for human trafficking, specializing in the trade of international victims.

Because of its international airports, numerous bus stations and busy interstate highways, Houston’s ship providing easy access to the Gulf of Mexico, and shared borders with Mexico, Texas has become North America’s number one supply site for young children used in sex and labor trafficking.  Proximity, demographics, and a substantial immigrant labor force all combine to make Texas an ideal location for the trafficking industry.  With three cities (Houston (4), San Antonio (7), Dallas (9)) included on the top ten list of largest cities in the United States (and a 4th, Austin, not far behind), a copious amount of sex based businesses such as strip clubs, massage parlors, and escort services call Texas home.  Furthermore, major sporting events, conventions, and universities attract large numbers of visitors from all over the world, creating a higher demand for services of the commercial sex industry and a need to fill that void.  Additionally, I-10, described by the U.S. Department of Justice as the number one route for human trafficking in the U.S., runs across the entire state of Texas providing an effective and efficient manner for traffickers to quickly transport victims between remote locations or across state lines.

In 2013, President Obama signed the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which renews crucial federal anti-trafficking programs, resources for services provided to survivors of human trafficking, and partnerships with certain countries to protect and prevent child trafficking.  Furthermore, the TVPA blocks U.S. foreign aid and assistance from being transferred to counties that use child soldiers and forms programs that respond to those humanitarian emergencies that create an elevated risk of human trafficking.  While the U.S. government has recognized the prevalence of the issue and shown support for combating the problem, according to World Vision, government funding designated for efforts to fight both international and domestic human trafficking account for only .0003 percent of the federal budget. In other words, World Vision calculates that for every $32 traffickers earn by exploiting another person, the U.S. government spends 10 cents combating this exploitation.

While I can appreciate the complexity of the human trafficking issue and the potential solutions to eradicate it as well as the severity of the budget deficit the United States as a country is facing, more needs to be done to narrow the gap between profits made by traffickers and the amount of resources allotted to finding those traffickers and rescuing the millions of individuals in captivity.  With modern day avenues such as the internet allowing traffickers and organized crime rings to synchronize business plans and activities and transport victimized children around the globe as needed and demand dictates, perhaps more attention should be focused on the very phenomenon that allows human traffickers to be so elusively prolific—the internet.  In other words, perhaps the best way to track the increasing number of digital footprints left behind by traffickers is to fight fire with fire by focusing on the development and advancement of other technological methods that can be used to identify, trace, track, and catalog both victims and offenders.  Whether or not you agree that attention should be focused on advancing technologies or believe that some other method is a more effective way of combating human trafficking, I’m sure we can all agree on one thing—allocating a mere 10 cents to the fight against human exploitation for every $32 profit pocketed by traffickers is not an adequate distribution nor does the trivial figure serve as an effective or successful deterrent to individuals engaged in the lucrative trade.  With more people enslaved today than at any other time in human history, a reorganization of budget allocations and an increase in resources as well as enhanced societal awareness and understanding is absolutely needed in order to both continue and improve the fight against human and child trafficking and exploitation both domestically and internationally.

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