Human trafficking could be defined similarly to slavery: it is the sale of an individual. It is surfacing as the second largest criminal industry, after drug distribution, and is a growing trade based off human exploitation, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Though it often goes unheard of, human trafficking is a serious and widespread crime and is making its way around the U.S. — and Kansas — at a fast pace.
“The issue of human trafficking is not controversial. Slavery is wrong, point blank,” said Ariel Anib, senior in criminology. “The thing about human trafficking is that it can affect anyone; families, children, men, women — all classes.”
But there is more behind trafficking than meets the eye. About 600,000 to 800,000 victims are trafficked worldwide each year, and approximately 17,500 of those people are trafficked in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of State. The state department also reported the number of U.S. citizens trafficked within the country is even higher. And while cases are frequently linked to sex trafficking, there are other industries that exploit people for different types of labor, as well.
“It is such a multi-level problem,” said Nadia Shapkina, assistant professor in sociology, anthropology and social work.
Trafficking involves extraction of profit from extreme labor. However, all types of trafficking, whether sex or labor, go through the process of recruitment of individuals, transportation and exploitation, she said.
She also explained labor trafficking can be either individual or organization-based and could include any type of business, including agricultural and sweatshop labor.
“The sex trade is one industry among many,” Shapkina said.
The U.S. State Department reported 80 percent of human trafficking victims are women or young girls.
Dorthy Halley, coordinator of the Kansas Human Trafficking Advisory Board, said it is difficult to estimate the number of cases in Kansas because many cases related to trafficking have been prosecuted for related charges, rather than the crime itself.
But all trafficking exists illegally underground, which makes exact numbers of victims difficult to estimate anywhere. Shapkina said people are often unaware of the working conditions of individuals who manufacture the products sold in local convenience stores, meaning students might unknowingly contribute to human trafficking by purchasing a cotton sweatshirt made in China.
Anib said she saw a gap in research over trafficking issues in Kansas and decided to start a research project on the issue. Shapkina, who is Anib’s mentor for the research, said they have looked at several different case studies involving trafficking. Most cases they have seen, they said, involve sex trafficking.
“If you ask the average citizen in this state if trafficking occurs, they would give you a flat-out ‘No,'” Anib said. “However, so far, my research has uncovered some cases in not only Kansas City, but Wichita as well.”
These cities are in close proximity to Interstate 35, she said, which allows Kansas to be the central area to traffic individuals to and from Texas and Oklahoma.
Kristen Tebow, senior in criminology and women’s studies and president of KSU Americans for an Informed Democracy, said sex trafficking down Interstate 70, from Denver to Kansas City, is also rapidly increasing.
These highways make Kansas vulnerable to human trafficking because they are commerce of transportation, Halley said.
“The majority are forced into the commercial sex trade,” she said. “The vast rural areas are conducive for forced labor on farms.”
However, increased efforts across Kansas are forming to prevent human trafficking altogether. Both Tebow and Anib are interested in prevention-related efforts in Manhattan. Tebow, who experienced sex trafficking firsthand in Junction City in 2006, said community education and knowledge is the essential first step in stopping human trafficking.
“I was a survivor of human trafficking, but I wouldn’t have put myself in the situation if I knew about the issue,” she said.
Tebow said KSU Americans for Informed Democracy is a political organization that raises awareness of the issue on campus and keeps everyone informed on legislative efforts. She added that K-State is an at-risk population because human trafficking is “a crime that preys on the youth.”
Anib said she is involved in the development of a new organization called K-Staters that Care, which is scheduled to host the Stop Slavery Summit in April 2011. The weeklong event includes a wide variety of events to raise awareness, she said.
“I want K-State students to understand that this is the civil rights movement of our generation,” Anib said.
She added that apathy does not make the problem of modern-day slavery go away — “It only makes it worse,” she said.
Tebow said the lack of task forces against human trafficking in Kansas is a problem. She and other individuals are in the process of starting a task force in Manhattan, an organization that should be implemented within the next year, she said.
While Halley said there has not been sufficient state funding to support a task force specifically for trafficking in Kansas, she said the statewide advisory board has participated in multiple public awareness efforts that have shown promising results.
“Since the beginning of (the Human Trafficking Advisory Board), which started in 2009, we have seen an increase in awareness of the problem of those on the front line,” Halley said. “One of the things we are hearing is that there are more cases being identified, which indicates that
increasing awareness across Kansas can improve the criminal justice response.”
Human trafficking is a growing criminal industry. Doing the research is necessary for the movement toward prevention.
“We want to get the word out that this happens, and then we can go from there,” Tebow said.
If you or someone you know is being trafficked, or would like more information on human trafficking, the Kansas Human Trafficking Information and Referral is available at 1-800-828-9745 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
And next time, when you go to mindlessly grab that milk chocolate candy bar from the top shelf of the gas station, stop and remind yourself of the individuals who might have worked for little or no pay to manufacture that delight.