January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Human trafficking, according the Department of Homeland Security is the “…use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor” either commercial or sex work. In other words, it is using people as a commodity at the expense of the person’s dignity and right to freedom.
Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world. The United Nations reports that it is an $8 billion to $10 billion industry. In the U.S., the Urban Institute estimates that the commercial sex trade in several major U.S. cities ranges from $39 million to $290 million annually. Most victims are young females, but adults and those under the age of 18, boys, men and gender minorities can also be victims of human trafficking. What these facts don’t tell us, is the toll borne by the victims, many of whom are physically and sexually abused, not allowed access to money or identification documents, and who lack knowledge about their whereabouts.
What can we do to help victims of human trafficking? Community involvement is key. In 2013, our organization, NOVA, established the Bucks Coalition Against Human Trafficking (BCAT). This coalition includes members of the Bucks County community, faith-based groups, law enforcement and government agencies working to help victims of human trafficking prosecute traffickers and engage in legislative advocacy.
In addition, the coalition works to raise awareness of human trafficking. Once such activity that BCAT is involved with is the Red Sand Project. Developed by artist and activist Molly Gochman in 2014, this entails filling cracks in the sidewalk with red sand. This calls attention to the victims of human trafficking, who often fall through what the artist calls the “metaphoric cracks” of society. The Red Sand Project is a participatory artwork that creates opportunities to raise questions and take action against circumstances that can lead to human trafficking. We invite people in Bucks County to join with us in filling sidewalk cracks with red sand to both highlight the crime of human trafficking and raise awareness on the steps needed to end this crime. Red sand is available at NOVA’s headquarters, located at 2370 York Road in Jamison. Members of the community can share photos of the cracks they have filled with red sand on Facebook, using the @BCAT handle and hashtag #RedSandProject.
While awareness, advocacy and laws are very important, it is the victims that we must keep foremost in our minds. They are like most of us, in that they have families, they desire to improve their position in life, and they want to live in peace. Yet, they are exploited by others for selfish gain. So, each of us has a role to play in ending human trafficking. Learn how to recognize signs of trafficking. Join BCAT or volunteer at a nonprofit that is working with victims and survivors. Contact state legislators and members of Congress to support legislation that tightens laws against trafficking.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Without action from thoughtful, committed citizens, human trafficking will continue. The end of trafficking and the suffering it causes, calls for action from each one of us.
Elyse Hoekstra is Bucks Coalition Against Human Trafficking Organizer.