Human Trafficking: Today’s 150 Billion Dollar Worldwide Slave Industry
by Erin Kamel
“I will say one thing to all the traffickers out there,” said Sunitha Krishnan, looking dead into the camera. “The war is on. Even if I’m not there, even if I’m dead and gone, there are many others that will continue the fight that are warriors that will wipe this trade out. You cannot wipe us out.”
In 1996, Krishnan co founded Prajwala, one of the world’s largest sanctuaries in India for trafficked women and girls. She’s no stranger to the violence the victims at her sanctuary have endured. At the age of 15, she was gang raped and had to live with the shame and stigma that is put on so many victims of sexual violence. In India, “Victims of rape and sexual assault are still subjected to humiliation, doubt and hostility when they try to report their experiences,” according to Vidhi Doshi, India correspondent for The Washington Post. Krishnan said the unfairness of that stigma is the driving force behind her work at the sanctuary.
In the past 22 years, Prajwala has saved over 20,000 trafficking victims in India and aided in convicting 1,600 human traffickers. Human trafficking is a 150 billion dollar industry with 24.9 million victims worldwide, according to the International Labor Association. While 19 percent of those victims are exploited for sex, they bring in 66 percent of trafficking revenue, according to the Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe.
But the traffickers in India are striking back, with arson and acid among other forms of violence, against organizations dedicated to dismantling their profitable industry. They have threatened Krishnan and infiltrated her sanctuary, even brutally stabbing one of her employees. Many of Krishnan’s employees advise her not to go to Prajwala in fear that she will be next.
There are currently six female traffickers at the sanctuary planted there to pose as victims, Krishnan says. She can’t do anything about it because they’re not actively breaking the law. “These six are waiting for me,” said Krishnan.
Organizations around the world, like hers, are still burdened with the task of sensitizing people to human trafficking while traffickers continue to outwit them, something that frustrates the advocate.
Today, while organizations struggle to educate the masses, the profiles of victims are shifting. 22 years ago, when Krishnan started her work, the profiles of victims were more easily identifiable. Victims were almost exclusively females from low socioeconomic statuses. But with the employment of technology and its ability to allow traffickers to groom targeted females through social media, victims are more commonly middle class females.
Talking to an audience at the 2018 Women in the World Summit, she said, “What bothers me is half the people in this audience will not even believe that their own children are vulnerable to this crime. We are still in a state of denial.”
Trafficking, it seems, is not just happening in developing countries. In America, 8,759 cases of human trafficking were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and BeFree Textline in 2017, according to the Polaris Project. This is a 13 percent increase from 2016.
Traffickers are adaptable, wealthy and well connected. They are always one step ahead.
The average age of a victim traded in America is 13 years old, according to A Call to Men, a violence prevention organization that educates men all over the world about healthy, respectful “manhood” in order to prevent violence against women and girls.
“To understand all aspects of sex trafficking in the United States, you have to open your mind and let go of what you have seen or heard on television,” said Tina Frundt, trafficking survivor and co-founder of Courtney’s House, a safe place for underage trafficking victims, in a 2005 essay published on the Women’s Funding Network’s website. “You need to let go of the media’s portrayal of the ‘joys’ of street prostitution, and open your eyes to the violence and control the pimps and sex traffickers exercise over their victims, who are mostly girls and young women.” Frundt goes to on to explain how the media plays its part in glamorizing the sex trafficking industry by normalizing the words “pimp” or “pimping” and desensitizing people to the violent reality behind the words.
With the use of the Internet and social media today, pimps and traffickers are able to remain faceless and nameless if they want to. They can operate under the guise of website administrator.
Backpage.com, a site that was developed to run classified ads and became a notorious sex ad site, brought 500 million dollars in prostitution-related revenues since it launched in 2004, according to the indictment against founders of the site. The site was also responsible for advertising sex trafficking victims. In the beginning of April, Backpage.com was seized by the U.S. federal government. Seven of the websites top administrators were indicted on 93 counts and charged with conspiracy, facilitating prostitution and money laundering.
But traffickers just moved to other sites. According to Emily Kennedy, CEO of Marinus Analytics, a startup company that develops technology to aid officials in criminal cases, data showed a “significant disruption” in the human trafficking industry the first week Backpage.com was seized. But only a few days later, traffickers had already moved their activity to new sites.
While traffickers continue to use technology to lure and market victims, Kennedy has developed technology to combat trafficking.
Since 2011, Traffic Jam has aided in rescuing hundreds of trafficking victims in the U.S. and Canada, according to Kennedy, who spoke at the 2018 Women in the World Summit. Detectives across the world are using these artificial intelligence tools to sift through data that they wouldn’t otherwise have the time or manpower to sort out.
Face Search, also developed by Kennedy, is a facial recognition technology used today to assist law enforcement with locating victims. This technology enables officials to use any photo of the victim they are searching for, from social media or a missing persons poster, to determine whether the victim has been marketed online. Users of Face Search have an 88 percent success rate.
“They know how to lure these victims and they do it very effectively,” said Kennedy of traffickers. “In fact, they wait outside of schools. They’ll wait outside of malls and they know what they’re looking for.”
While organizations and leaders in the fight against human trafficking work hard to rescue and rehabilitate the women and girls who are living in this nightmare today, men and women need to band together to inform and protect young women and girls from falling prey to this industry.
Data from organizations like the Polaris Project, can keep young women and girls up to date about who’s at risk, how traffickers lure and control their victims, and who to call if they suspect someone is in trouble.
As long as young women and girls are uncomfortable talking about this taboo subject, traffickers are forcing young women and girls to live it. “Can you break your culture of silence?” challenged Krishnan in her 2009 Ted Talk. Start the dialogue and maybe save a life.