ROCKINGHAM — It no longer happens in town squares, with slave traders parading their captives on public platforms to be sold to the highest bidder — but slavery remains a lucrative business, and North Carolina is among the top ten states in the nation for human trafficking activity.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security website defines human trafficking as “modern-day slavery (involving) the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”
Globally, billions of dollars each year change hands in human sales, according the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In addition to the performance of forced labor and sex acts, victims can be procured for the illegal harvesting of organs, domestic servitude and in the case of children, coerced begging.
North Carolina is currently ranked 8th nationwide for reported cases of human trafficking, with Charlotte the highest-ranking city in the state, the N.C. News Service reported earlier this month.
A presidential proclamation named January National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and DHS has issued a set of guidelines to assist people in identifying possible victims:
• Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship?
• Has a child stopped attending school?
• Has the person had a sudden or dramatic change in behavior?
• Is a juvenile engaged in commercial sex acts?
• Is the person disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
• Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?
• Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?
• Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep, or medical care?
• Is the person often in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, such as where they go or who they talk to?
• Does the person appear to be coached on what to say?
• Is the person living in unsuitable conditions?
• Does the person lack personal possessions and appear not to have a stable living situation?
• Does the person have freedom of movement? Can the person freely leave where they live? Are there unreasonable security measures?
If there is reasonable suspicion of slavery, people are urged to call 1-866-347-2423 — but to never confront a suspected trafficker directly or “alert a victim to any suspicions.” DHS also cautions that not every person displaying some or even all of the indicators above is necessarily involved in slavery or trafficking.
Kiricka Yarbrough Smith, project C.O.P.E. (Collarboration, Outreach, Protection and Empowerment) administrator for the North Carolina Council of Women, said trafficking often goes hand-in-hand with domestic violence and sexual assault. Because the mission of C.O.P.E. is to “increase adult and youth awareness on the issue of human trafficking in order to eradicate it from our state,” she often visits local organizations focused on those issues to provide educational workshops within the program’s specialty area.
Smith will visit Richmond County on Thursday to present trafficking information relevant to this region.
“One of the things we looked at were some of the key crime areas in the community,” she said, speaking of Richmond County. “We looked at gangs, and there is a lot of (sexually transmitted diseases) there. There is a lot of activity in sexual trafficking of girls and young boys by gangs more frequently now, in addition to drugs and illegal firearms. And sometimes this is also found in businesses like massage parlors.”
Smith added that sexual trafficking can take place hidden in plain sight under the auspices of legitimate businesses, and that some types of human slavery involve labor rather than sex.
“Commercial front brothels, or a residential brothel, might be in a neighborhood or maybe within an established business or a store,” she said. “It’s a place that’s supposed to be a business, but other activities are going on in the store. These are typically restaurants, nail salons, hair salons, places where people may be forced to work without pay.”
She said that many people falsely believe immigrants are the most commonly encountered victims of forced labor.
“The majority are born right here in the United States,” Smith explained. “Children are the most trafficked population. They are trafficked by love — by situations where they are getting things they feel they are missing, and they feel a sense of trust or love with the person luring them. They are looking for affection and admiration they are not getting elsewhere.”
The reason never to make direct contact with a suspected trafficker, she said, has to do with the way in which such people regard their business holdings.
“It’s important, because trafficking is a $32 billion per year industry,” Smith said. “With that, you are interfering with someone’s income. People are seen by traffickers as belongings or merchandise. That is why you need to call the hotline or contact local law enforcement directly, but not to try and rescue the person yourself.”
While many who end up in slavery conditions arrive through brutality, numerous victims of human trafficking often do not realize they are being compromised, she explained.
“Trafficking happens through violence, threats and manipulation,” Smith said. “Or again, love is used to lure victims. And since Richmond County does not currently have any trafficking-specific program, we reach out through those organizations that concentrate on sexual assault or domestic violence.”
The state does have trafficking-specific programs in key areas including Charlotte, Asheville, Greensboro, Raleigh, Durham, Fayetteville, Wilmington and Greenville.
“One of the key reasons trafficking occurs frequently in North Carolina is because it is centrally located with Interstate-95, I-85 and I-40 all running through it,” Smith said.
She explained that only about 1 percent of calls made to the trafficking hotline actually go to the national hotline.
“Most go to local law enforcement agencies, shelters and churches and other groups,” she said. “This is why a lot of the data is difficult to track. There is no single, accurate database for statistical information on trafficking in the state right now, but we are working on that and hope to eventually have a system in place.”
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.