Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery, Vanessa Garza, associate director for the office of refugee resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services, told Cybercast News Service in an interview.
Although elaborate international criminal networks stand behind some human trafficking organizations, there are a number of “mom and pop” type of criminal enterprises that use legitimate businesses as a front, Garza said.
“Traffickers are very smart. They know how to lie, and they know how to play on the vulnerabilities of their victims,” she said. “We are talking about hidden crimes that are difficult to detect, and for this reason, trafficking is often viewed as a low risk venture by the practitioners.”
Moreover, Garza added, it is important to understand that trafficking is distinct from other types of smuggling operations.
“Smuggling is a crime against a country’s borders,” she said. “Human trafficking is a crime against the dignity of the person. Smuggling involves the unauthorized crossing of a border into another country but usually does not involve coercion. There is a voluntary will to be smuggled.
“The two do often get confused, because smuggled individuals can find themselves in trafficking situations once they arrive into a particular country,” Garza added.
The HHS has thus far certified trafficking victims in the U.S. from 77 different countries around the world, according to the department’s Web site.
The State Department has identified human trafficking as one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world today. Between 14,500 and 17,500 victims are trafficked into the U.S. each year with a majority coming from Mexico, Garza said.
Immigration relief and social services are now available to victims in the U.S., thanks to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), she explained.
Under the law, there are two different definitions of trafficking. Sex trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person who is forced to perform such an act is under 18 years of age.”
Labor trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.”
Over half of the trafficking victims worldwide are children, according to the State Department.
“The legislation really changed the way we look at everything,” Garza said. “We don’t just see child prostitutes anymore, we see victims of human trafficking.”
Victimized children can be exploited both for sexual purposes and for forced labor, Garza continued. They can be found in commercial sex operations, domestic servitude, sweatshops, construction sites, and panhandling, she said.
Garza acknowledged that government officials “made a mistake” in assuming that the victims of trafficking would contact the appropriate authorities themselves.
“Traffickers use fear to their advantage, so the victims need to be rescued,” she said. “They are not going to liberate themselves. In fact, some are trafficked at such a young age that they don’t know any other way. There is psychological trauma involved, and we also see instances of the ‘Stockholm syndrome,’ where victims are in love with their traffickers.”
Vigilant members of the public can help to break up and expose human trafficking by “looking beneath the surface” and “picking up on the right clues,” Garza indicated.
For instance, victims can sometimes be identified by their living conditions, she said. If an individual is actually living at their workplace, or with their employer or in cramped conditions, this could be a tip off.
In an effort to more effectively provide trafficking victims with social services, HHS has awarded the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) a “per capita victim services contract,” Garza said. In fact, one-third of the HHS budget for trafficking now goes to the USCCB, she pointed out.
The USCCB serves as a conduit for medical care, food supplies, employment services, counseling needs, and other federal benefits.
Earlier this year, Garza addressed an audience of Catholics gathered together for the weekly “Theology on Tap” session held at a pub in Alexandria, Va. In her talk, she said “a culture of death” was largely responsible for fueling human trafficking operations throughout the international community.
“Human trafficking robs a person of their God-given dignity,” she said. “The traffickers inflict senseless violence on their victims. They function in the realm of dark rooms, pornography, rape and murder. All of these ingredients make up the culture of death that leads to human trafficking.”