Guest post by Regina Bernadin with the International Rescue Committee of Miami. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
Clara was born in a small village in Central America. At 14, she was the oldest child in a family of eight and felt responsible for helping her parents take care of her siblings. When her father became sick and unable to work, the family was plunged into poverty. When the opportunity came to work in the fields in Florida, Clara left her happy childhood for the long trek across the border into the United States. Upon her arrival in Florida, she found that she would be working 14 hours a day for almost no pay, living in a cramped trailer with other workers and showering outside with a garden hose. She was underfed, not allowed to contact her family, feared being sexually assaulted, and was beaten if she was sick and couldn’t work. She was told she could leave once she paid her smuggling debt, but making a few dollars a day, she knew she couldn’t walk away, especially since the owners also threatened her family’s life. Distraught, she just tried to make it through each day.
Florida ranks third in the number of human trafficking investigations and cases identified. Being a port of entry to the rest of the country, having such favorable weather and bountiful agricultural fields has made this region a hot bed for this type of criminal activity. This gives the state an unfavorable distinction and overshadows the good work being done at every level.
When I first began working in this field in 2005, we were just learning how to fight back. Front line responders such as emergency room workers, law enforcement agents, and victim advocates, were all coming across victims and individually trying to figure out how to help them out. Many times victims of sex trafficking were mislabeled as child prostitutes or seen as undocumented immigrants, like Clara, who were exploited because of their lack of immigration status and familiarity with the language and customs of the United States. We failed to look beneath the surface and see that they had been coerced into a life of slavery and exploitation.
Today we have better tools, more knowledge, and a better approach to combating human trafficking. Front line responders are now working together to create ways to help those they might come across in their daily work. Law enforcement agents are being trained on this issue at the police academy, child protective investigators know what indicators to look for in responding to a call, airport staff is learning how to spot the signs of human trafficking, and the school system is focusing on prevention among its youth. Communities are encouraged to call the Florida Abuse Hotline at (800) 962-2873 to report tips that could save Clara and other victims. But more can be done.
Good work is being done, and I want to encourage you to learn how you can join those throughout Florida who are working to rescue and restore victims of commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor, and slavery. Coalitions of interested citizens are working year-round to raise awareness in their respective communities. Others mentor both American–born and foreign-national victims and help them develop new skills. You can also volunteer or fundraise to help organizations who provide direct services to trafficking survivors or collect necessary goods by hosting donation drives. But before you decide what the best way for you to help is, there is one thing you can do today. Talk to your colleagues, loved ones, and friends about human trafficking. It will take all of us to combat trafficking, and this is the first way how.