Human trafficking: it happens in our own neighborhoods

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Crude oil. Coffee. Gold. Sugar. Cotton. They are among the most traded commodities in the world – raw materials that are collected and used to produce what we need for everyday life. Raw materials are the basis of our economy.

But it’s not just the products that are bought and sold. Tragically, there is also a thriving slave trade that treats people – most often girls and young women – for the purpose of sexual exploitation or labor. Their average age of entry is 16.

Human trafficking is big business: around $ 150 billion a year and growing. This is about three times the size of the world sugar market.

I became more aware of the problem of trafficking when the National Conflict Resolution Center recognized San Diego resident Buki Domingos as the Local Peacemaker of the Year at our 2019 Peacemaker Awards dinner.

Born in Nigeria, Domingos arrived in the United States in 2013. Without knowing it, she found herself embroiled in a human trafficking scheme, forced to perform as a singer without pay. After escaping his predicament, Domingos used his voice in songs and speeches to raise awareness of the issue. She focused on the plight of black immigrant women, who are disproportionately victimized.

Yet I saw trafficking as something that largely took place far away, with victims transported across national or international borders.

Recently, I attended a fundraiser for a local non-profit organization called Free to Thrive, which provides legal and support services to survivors of human trafficking. I’ve learned of the pervasiveness of trafficking right here in San Diego County – in many of our own neighborhoods, in fact.

According to the FBI, San Diego is ranked among the 13 worst regions in the United States for human trafficking, with as many as 8,000 victims each year. As a business, trafficking generates more than $ 810 million a year for San Diego’s underground economy, second only to drug trafficking.

It is not a question of children torn from our streets. Deception, coercion and force are the tools favored by human traffickers. Sometimes abusers are “insiders” such as family members, boyfriends and peers. The risk of trafficking is unsurprisingly greatest among the most vulnerable, including runaways and young people who are homeless or living with foster families. Victims often share a history of child abuse or domestic violence.

COVID-19 has sparked a perfect storm for online predators. Online child recruitment tips, as reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, nearly doubled from 6.3 million in the first half of 2019 to 12 million in the first half of 2020.

In the war against human trafficking, early intervention is crucial. Collaboration too. Young lives are in danger. This issue therefore deserves our immediate attention.

Along with Free to Thrive and other local nonprofits, the San Diego County Attorney’s Office is actively addressing human trafficking through its Sex Crimes and Human Trafficking Unit. It includes prosecutors, investigators, paralegals, victim advocates and staff who work together on all fronts: detection, prevention, education and prosecution. Likewise, the U.S. Attorney’s Office created a Violent Crimes and Human Trafficking Section in 2019 to lead collaborations between federal and local law enforcement agencies in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking cases.

We need to educate ourselves on the warning signs of human trafficking and know what to do if we suspect it. Too often, those closest to victims of trafficking – parents, teachers, friends – are unaware of the abuse happening before their eyes.

Knowledge can make a real difference. In 2007, a national organization called Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) was formed for members of the trucking, bus and energy industries. TAT – which positions itself as “the eyes and ears of our nation’s highways” – has trained over a million truck drivers, store cashiers and other staff to take action when they observe suspicious behavior or unusual, consistent with traffic. So far, the training has resulted in 2,692 calls made on behalf of 1,296 potential victims of trafficking.

Calls are made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, a 24/7 resource for help when a human trafficking situation is observed. Victims can call the hotline to be put in contact with local law enforcement and social service providers who can help them get out of exploitative situations and find themselves in a safe environment.

The toll-free number is 1-888-373-7888. I put it in my phone. You should too. It could save the most precious possession of all: a life.

Dinkin is president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, a San Diego-based group that seeks solutions to difficult problems, including intolerance and incivility. To learn more about NCRC programming, visit ncrconline.com.

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