NORTH CANTON – Human trafficking is not a palatable topic of conversation, yet, it is one of those subjects that needs to be discussed at length if society ever hopes to solve the problem.
Educating the public is one of the most important steps needed to begin eliminating this underworld, said three speakers – Jim Knight, Humility of Mary Sister Karen Bernhardt, and Kitty Scherer – at a recent gathering at North Canton St. Paul Parish here.
The event was sponsored by the Respect Life Committee, housed at St. Paul’s – a multi-parish/faith community organization dedicated to upholding the dignity and value of all human life, from conception to natural death. The gathering addressed what to look for and how to make a difference in this problem that is occurring in plain sight in northeast Ohio.
Human trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, transfer or retaining of a person for a commercial act or sex act, or labor services through force, fraud or coercion, said Knight, a crime prevention specialist in the Stark County prosecutor’s office.
“There’s not really one face of human trafficking,” said Scherer, with (PATHS) Partners Against Human Trafficking-Stark. “Victims include men, women and children. However, about 80 percent of sex trafficking victims are women and girls.”
In America, slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment, which states that ‘neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the United States.’ Knight noted. “The very definition of slavery is ‘people who are held or compelled into service against their will.’ After the Civil War this was supposed to be a dead issue.
Knight continued that human trafficking is a devastating human rights violation that takes place not just internationally but it also happens right here in the United States.
“It is indeed a form of modern day slavery because traffickers will use force, fraud or coercion to enslave their victims into situations involving not only sexual exploitation for trafficking but also forced labor. It is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world today,” Knight said.
Human trafficking is often operated by organized crime syndicates and takes in $32 billion a year, he continued.
“What draws traffickers to the human trafficking side is that with a drug, you may have a quantity, you may use it once or twice and that’s it, but with a person, sadly, you can reuse that person, over and over again.”
It is estimated that there are over 20 million victims of human trafficking globally, Knight said.
The International Labor Organization estimates that forced labor and human trafficking is a $150 billion industry internationally. The U.S. Department of Labor identified 136 goods from 74 countries made by forced or child labor.
And if those facts weren’t enough, in 2015 an estimated one out of five endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims.
“A long time ago, when I started this, everybody thought it was happening in other parts of the world,” Sister Karen said. “Then we began to see and hear about things happening here as well. In Stark County we’ve been really good about working with different ‘partners’ to identify victims.”
One might be compelled to ask: “Why is Ohio such a gateway for the sex trade and labor trafficking?” Believe it or not, Sister Karen explained, the Buckeye State has many attributes that make it the perfect place to begin and end this journey.
For one thing, Ohio has an effective highway system that boasts the most truck stops in the nation. Ohio is within a day’s drive of major cities. The state also has a rising immigrant population, thanks to the popularity and importance of the agricultural industry.
The state’s high unemployment rate and many strip clubs also make it appealing for the human trafficking industry, she explained.
“Basically, we are a destination place,” Sister Karen said. “[One] can easily get from one end of the state to another in a two-hour drive. That’s very helpful for traffickers who want to move people.
“We also have the Great Lakes. There’s 146 miles along the Great Lakes in Ohio so that’s an opportune place to get on a boat and take their victims somewhere else,” she said.
So what can communities do?
“There’s a big role that people can play especially when it comes to awareness,” said Sister Karen. “You need to be aware and observant wherever you are and willing to call law enforcement.
Some red flags that an individual is a victim of human trafficking include signs of physical abuse, being hesitant to speak for her/himself, avoiding eye contact, not attempting to engage, and never being left alone