Human trafficking victims are reaching out for help in record numbers, according to an advocacy group that operates a national 911 text and phone call center.
More than 1,600 survivors of human trafficking reached out for help in 2015 – a 24 percent increase over 2014, according to the annual report released by Polaris. The organization’s hotline also takes calls from concerned friends, family and bystanders who witness a suspected human trafficking event.
“From the domestic servant forced to work for little pay who required emergency shelter to the young girl made to sell sex online against her will who texted us for crisis support, survivors of human trafficking are reaching out to the national hotline more than ever,” said Polaris CEO Bradley Myles.
The latest Polaris report offers important insight into a problem that often is hard to quantify. The disparity between estimates of trafficking victims and the number of confirmed cases has fueled an intense debate about whether the problem had been exaggerated. The agencies most likely to encounter higher numbers of victims – local law enforcement and social services – are inconsistent in data collection and reporting. And the anonymity of the Internet shields pimps from prosecution while it broadens their reach to buyers.
The Internet also makes victims invisible to everyone except their pimps and johns – until they make a call or send a message asking for help.
In 2015, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) received 21,947 calls, 1,535 online requests, 1,275 emails and 1,472 SMS messages on its BeFree Textline, operated by Polaris. Human trafficking took place in all 50 states. The top venue for sex trafficking was commercial front brothels, and the top industry for labor trafficking was domestic work. In total, 25,696 trafficking cases have been reported through the NHTRC since December 2007.
Greater publicity accounts in part for the increase in calls. Thirty states now require selected businesses, such as strip clubs, motels and truck stops, to display National Human trafficking hotline numbers in prominent places. In Georgia and many other states, failure to do so can lead to fines as high as $5,000. Researchers at Texas Christian University, Northeastern University, and Colorado College published a report last month that found requiring the NHTRC number to be posted in public areas was the most effective way to increase human trafficking arrests. The researchers also found that nearly every aspect of state investment in human trafficking – from training law enforcement to forming a task force – had a significant impact on increasing state arrests for the crime.
Anti-trafficking organizations have tried to make the hotline number more visible for years. One effort has focused on putting bars of soap in motels and strip clubs. The soap’s wrapper asks: “Are you being forced to do anything you do not want to do?” and includes the trafficking hotline. Theresa Flores, 49, a sex trafficking survivor, came up with the idea.
A fellow classmate and his older cousins drugged and raped Flores in high school. They trafficked her for more than two years, threatening to reveal humiliating photos of her rape if she told her parents or called the police. The abuse ended only after Flores’ family relocated to another state. Like many sex trafficking victims, Flores didn’t know where to turn, or who to call.
“They didn’t even have the word trafficking. Whenever I got up the nerve to do something, I hit a brick wall,” Flores told the Detroit Free Press.
And while experts are closer to understanding both the scope of the problem as well as what works in the fight against human trafficking, public opinion on the subject remains conflicted.
“Human trafficking feels overwhelming to people, but the level of concern among people is not equal,” Amy Farrell, author of the Northeastern University study explained. “On the whole, they think it’s a terrible thing, but they don’t know how to fix it and think it should be someone else’s problem.”