MARION — The term “human trafficking” often conjures images of young girls being snatched off the streets or from airports and bus depots and forced into drugs and prostitution.
However, trafficking victims are often trafficked by someone they know and trust, Gretchen Brown-Waech, human trafficking coordinator with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, told 650 people at Linn-Mar High School on Thursday night. The program was organized by the Marion Police Department.
Trafficking, she said, can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Traffickers target vulnerable populations, she said, including those in foster care, those who struggle with substance abuse, runaways, abuse victims, homeless people and those living in poverty.
Many traffickers, she said, “hide in plain sight,” often blending in with the community.
“Human traffickers ... don’t just groom their victims, they groom their community,” she said. “They can present themselves as fine, upstanding people. They take advantage of communal trust and traffic people right under the noses of the community.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as a form of modern-day slavery that involves the use of force, fraud or coercion of a person to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. It is a multibillion dollar criminal industry.
According to the International Labor Organization, roughly 27 million people are trafficked globally, and more than 500,000 people are trafficked in the United States.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline counts more than 8,500 cases opened by law enforcement in 2017. The hotline reports it has taken 1,044 calls that refer to Iowa since 2007, which led to 271 cases opened by law enforcement. In 2017, the hotline received 218 calls that led to 74 cases.
“It happens here,” Brown-Waech said. “It happens in small towns. It happens in large cities. It can happen anywhere. And it happens quickly.”
Traffickers use violence, threats, deception, debt bondage and other manipulative tactics to entrap their victims and force them to provide labor or engage in commercial sex against their will.
SEEING THE SIGNS
Brown-Waech said victims are sometimes chained and bound, imprisoned in rundown houses or packed into the back of a van.
“But if that is all you’re looking for, you’re going to overlook an enormous percentage of human trafficking victims and human trafficking survivors,” Brown-Waech said.
The reality is victims can look like anyone else, and the signs can be subtle, she said.
Trafficking victims may not have a passport or any identifying documents in their possession, she said. They may appear nervous, fearful or coached on what to say, and if in a group setting, there may be a person who speaks for the others.
Trafficking victims may be unable to answer questions about their work or wages if asked, and they may be unwilling to make eye contact and may appear hostile or resistant to help.
WHAT CAN be done
When it comes to protecting your loved ones, it is important for people to be informed and aware, Brown-Waech said.
“Talk to your children about healthy relationships, boundaries, internet safety and sharing photos,” she said. “And work to develop a community — close relationships with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors.”
“When connected, you know what people are doing, you know what’s going on in the community, you know what your (children) and other children are doing. When you lose that, you are less aware of what is happening around you.”
“And most importantly, if you see something suspicious, say something.”
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