Human Trafficking Awareness Month Recognized in Pinellas Park
President Obama declared January National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month. In response, the Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking gathered today to discuss various aspects of the problem that is still widely regarded as unknown.
Representatives from various law enforcement agencies as well as some non-government organizations met today in Pinellas Park to raise awareness about human trafficking. Lieutenant George Koder of the Clearwater Police Department said that raising awareness and capitalizing on collaboration is a key to addressing this important issue.
"The summit is bringing everybody together in Tampa Bay to help victims and law enforcement can't do this by themselves because we have to take care of a victim once they're rescued. We need every level of government and NGO's, non-governmental organizations, and victim service providers to be able to help victims once they're rescued. It's a collaborative effort, so you'll have representation here from the YMCA/YWCA, Family Resources, the churches, the health department, because everybody needs to help these victims get restored."
One of the most dominant forms of human trafficking is sexual by nature. Alesia Adams, a Salvation Army coordinator against human trafficking from Atlanta said that victims often are portrayed as the criminals. She says the majority of human trafficking cases begin with an arrest of the victim for prostitution because it is easier to detect. These victims are also often children who she says arenâ€™t aware of being trafficked.
"They have no idea that around that next corner may be that freak, again, that wants to mutilate. The fact is that victims are often seduced, coerced, tricked, or forced into prostitution by pimps."
Adams said it is important to remain vigilant to signs of human trafficking.
"Due to the covert nature of the crime, sex trafficking can come to your attention indirectly through other violations. Prostitution, domestic violence crimes, drug charges, runaway or homeless charges, cases of assault, curfew violations, loitering and trespassing, cases of sexual abuse and neglect. Interactions with potential domestic minor sexual trafficking ... is you have to build the trust. They don't trust easy. We have to reassure the child that you are there to help them."
Human Trafficking among children is becoming more and more prevalent both sexually and otherwise. Ida Lopez of the World Relief Organization said it is important to educate children and families on the topic.
"We have to start going to schooling every day with kids so when they go out they know what to look for and they cannot be a victim. And we have many, many opportunities, this is a growing ... of human trafficking. We're beginning focusing on the immigration side of trafficking, we have seen a big increase in the domestic minor sex traffic."
Undocumented immigrants present a challenge in both detection and prosecution in Human Trafficking cases. These victims are often fearful to come forward due to their immigration status. Special Agent in Charge of Investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Susan McCormick said some victims will never come forward.
"These folks, if they've come from a foreign country, have paid big money to get brought into this country. So here they've saved, their mom and dad's life savings to pay to come to the country to make a better living and now they are being held, they're forced to do prostitution, things like that. Now, if they speak up, are they going to be killed, is their family going to be threatened? They feel like they're in a no win situation. They have to participate or comply and they're faced with physical abuse by these folks as well."
But McCormick wants immigrants to know that they do not need to stay quiet. She said there are options for people in their situation.
"We'll allow them, there's some temporary forms of immigration relief, one of them is continued presence while we allow them to be in the country. Another one is a T visa, which is if you're the victim of a trafficking case we can allow you to stay in the country for a year and that could be extended. After about 4 years you can actually apply to become a lawful permanent resident. There's also a ... visa, that's a bit more complicated, you have to cooperate with law enforcement and testify against your trafficker which sometimes gets a little dicey but there are ways that we can work with these individuals to allow them to stay in the country."
Human trafficking is becoming an increasingly common occurrence in our area and awareness is still on the rise. Lopez said one of the things that got her most involved in this cause is the reality that these victims arenâ€™t even seen as human beings by their assailants.
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"The trafficker, they pick up the phone and call and have the merchandise. They don't say they have human beings. They don't say, 'I have the girls'; 'I have the merchandise."