Do you know what human trafficking looks like? Can you tell when someone is being exploited?
As a variety of experts told those who attended the Empowerment Coalition of Milwaukee’s July meeting, human trafficking can happen anywhere and victimize anyone, defying stereotypes.
“When survivors tell you their stories, believe them,” said Ruby Boggans, the founder of Stop Predators of Trafficking (SPOT).
A few definitions, first:
- Sex trafficking: Sexual exploitation involving an individual under the age of 18, the age of consent.
- Human trafficking: Forced or coerced labor involving adults. Force or coercion can include debt bondage, drug addiction, threats to family or friends, theft of documents, blackmail, false recruitment, or other means.
Yes, sexual trafficking and exploitation happens out in the open -- on the streets, around strip clubs -- and can be orchestrated by a violent pimp. But women and men are also exploited by their partners, primarily their “boyfriend” who grooms and takes advantage of the victim, cutting him or her off from family and friends, and fueling a drug addiction or other dependency that allows the trafficker to maintain control.
Eileen Alvarado and Javier Acevedo-Baez, both Outreach Coordinators/Bilingual Educators at UMOS-Latina Resource Center, work with victims of human trafficking, especially those who are undocumented.
Acevedo-Baez gave as an example of sex trafficking “Alicia,” a young woman who had run away from home and whose boyfriend got her hooked on drugs and coerced her to be sexually trafficked. Although the boyfriend trafficked her, “it was really hard to break that tie,” he said, because the young woman still felt affection for him.
Deacon Steve Przedpelski, Director of Franciscan Peacemakers Street Ministry, engages sex workers on the street and encourages them to leave their situation and also address their substance abuse issues. The organization supports beds for three women who can stay long-term, and also runs Gifts for the Journey, a social enterprise for trafficking survivors to learn job skills and support themselves in their new life.
Deacon Steve said sex trafficking and exploitation has exploded throughout Wisconsin. “This is by far the worst it’s ever been. This problem is so huge it boggles the mind,” he said.
Forced Labor Happens Everywhere
Other victims are forced or coerced to work for little to no pay in harsh conditions. “Juan,” Acevedo-Baez said, was an undocumented immigrant who came to the US for a job and was a victim of labor trafficking. Juan’s employer didn’t pay for Juan’s papers, passport, transportation, and other costs associated with the job, as it was supposed to do. Instead, Juan was expected to work off those debts, as well as the money he owed the “coyote” who brought him over the border. As a result, Juan worked almost around the clock on construction jobs and was deprived of adequate food and water.
Although forced labor can be common in the construction industry, Acevedo-Baez said it happens in other industries, including:
- Street peddling
- Farms, including dairy farms
- Private homes
Acevedo-Baez said victims of forced labor often work long hours, are separated from the general community and live on the work site, often don’t speak English, are in poor health, show signs of rape or physical or sexual abuse, lack ID or travel documents, and appear extremely nervous if they are questioned by a stranger.
If you suspect someone is being trafficked, call the Milwaukee Police Department at 414-933-4444; if it’s an emergency, call 9-1-1.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888) accepts tips on potential trafficking, provides resources, and connects callers with local services.
National Human Trafficking Hotline | 1-888-373-7888
Wisconsin Child Sex Trafficking and Exploitation Indicator and Response Guide
UMOS Latina Resource Center
Gifts for the Journey
The next ECOM meeting, sponsored by Community Advocates, will focus on utility services and energy assistance. It will be held on Friday, September 21, at the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County. Click here for details and to register.