Understanding is key in human trafficking awareness

While available figures vary on the number of victims of human trafficking in Ohio, the 2013 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report issued by the U.S. Department of State gave an estimate of 27 million persons worldwide who are victims of trafficking at any given moment.

Only 40,000 were successfully identified globally in 2013, bringing to mind that an astounding 99.86% of trafficking victims remain unrecognized not only by society, but also by governments and law enforcement agencies around the world.

With statistics like this to consider, it is no wonder there has been a national push for identification and advocacy in regard to human trafficking victims across the country.

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

Locally, on January 25th, End Slavery Cincinnati and The Salvation Army of Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky will present the 2019 Anti-Human Trafficking Conference at the American Red Cross of Cincinnati. The conference will educate participants on improving the healthcare response to human trafficking, strategies to aid and provide legal services to survivors, and other topics within a selection of 12 workshops. There will also be a keynote address on advocacy delivered by a panel of human trafficking survivors.

With regard to the increasingly prominent Anti-Human Trafficking efforts nationwide, Erin Meyer, Anti-Human Trafficking Program Manager for The Salvation Army of Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky and Coalition Manager of End Slavery Cincinnati, says, “I think a lot of it has to do with a growing understanding of the victimization of the crime. Definitely, throughout the state of Ohio, there’s been a lot of statewide and local community efforts to try and shift the mindset and public understanding that is a standard in the community from that of viewing those that are being exploited as criminals.”

“Most of the time,” she says,” when we’re talking about trafficking victims, many are being exploited through commercial sex; others are going to be exploited through labor and maybe are foreign nationals. There’s a stigma attached there.”

“And so we’re really just educating the community,” Meyer continues. “People become more aware and start understanding what the exploitation looks like and that someone engaging in commercial sex on the street isn’t there because they want to — but that they’re there because of circumstances.”

According to Meyer, coercive manipulation by traffickers can take many forms based on a victim’s vulnerabilities. While physical and sexual assault are commonly thought of as methods of control, traffickers will also use threats of exposure. Reporting parental negligence to Children’s Services, reporting to immigration authorities, or exposing victims by posting explicit images and videos of them on social media are examples of threats strategically used by traffickers in maintaining a victim’s loyalty.

“For those with addiction issues, it can be controlling that substance use, threats to take it away, threats to deprive them of that access,” says Meyer. “It’s not necessarily a threat of physical harm. It’s creation of that culture of fear.”

Meyer and her colleagues are witness to this type of manipulation all the time.

We can see it when we do street outreach and we can see it when the trafficker takes an effort to make it seem that there’s no victimization,” Meyer says. “They’re creating the perception that that person is there because they want to be, which is the public’s perception.”

“So,” she continues, “as we change that, as the community changes that, as stakeholders at the state level change that, people are becoming more aware.”

The conference is in its tenth year, and Meyer has been involved nearly as long. The majority of attendees are professionals in the field, and some can receive continuing education credits (CEU’s/CLE’s) for being present, but anyone with an interest in learning more or helping the cause is welcome to register and attend.

“We do also have other community stakeholders, retired folks who are active in public awareness and advocacy,” says Meyer.

She encourages all who are able to contribute to attend and/or volunteer.

“We can always use volunteers — people just coming and learning about it, learning how they can participate — not just with our agency but with other partners. Just because you don’t want to go do street outreach, there’s always plenty to do for folks who are passionate and want to engage,” she says. “We’ve had people offer to knit scarves.”

She also urges anyone who needs assistance with a human trafficking situation to be aware of the national and local hotlines, both of which are accessible 24 hours a day, are confidential, and have interpreters at the ready.

“If anyone wants more information or to help someone with advocacy, then just give us a call,” offers Meyer, who has previously worked at the national hotline.

The pre-registration deadline for the Anti-Human Trafficking Conference is 9 a.m., January 23rd. The cost is $35 for a student, $55 for pre-registration, and $70 on same day. For more information, visit: http://www.endslaverycincinnati.org/events/conference2019.

The phone number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline is 888-373-7888. The Greater Cincinnati Hotline can receive calls and text messages at 513-800-1863.

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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.