Religious groups are mobilizing to tackle the well-hidden crime of human trafficking, which has spiked in numbers to more than 27 million women and children bought and sold into sexual slavery every year.
The U.S. State Department will release its annual report on human trafficking by the end of June. Experts say the report will show the increasing number of women and children being bought and sold into modern-day slavery and church leaders say their rescue and rehabilitation have become top priorities.
Prostitution and slavery are addressed in the Bible and many people of faith believe that fighting human trafficking is a moral and religious obligation.
Nearly 79 percent of all human trafficking cases are related to sexual exploitation and new estimates of the number of modern-day slaves range from about 10 to 30 million globally, according to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Common forms of human trafficking include: forced labor, sex trafficking, bonded labor, debt bondage among migrant workers, involuntary domestic servitude, forced child labor, and child soldiery. Related behaviors that are not considered to be human trafficking include: illegal adoptions, the human organ trade, child pornography, and prostitution, according to human rights advocates.
“Like most people I assumed slavery existed only in history books and that we had abolished more than a hundred and fifty years ago,” said Dr. Ana Nogales, a published psychologist.
“To my horror, I was very wrong. Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world and one of our most urgent human rights issues. It is occurring in our midst, in our communities, and yet it is largely a secret. A despicable secret.”
Religious leaders involved in the new movement say so much attention has been put on the problem of human trafficking in other countries it has been virtually ignored on how big the problem has grown in the U.S.
For the first time in its history, the 2010 State Department report listed the U.S. among countries faced with the problem of human trafficking.
Many religious organizations are raising awareness about the jump in human trafficking crimes in the United States by bringing the issue and its victims into their congregations and sermons.
They are creating websites, joining human rights organizations, listing online resources, and developing cross-denominational Freedom Sundays and interfaith conferences dedicated to the issue.
“Jesus said if you do something for someone else then we are doing it for Him,” said Janice Crasse, a member of a local church involved in creating a shelter for those rescued from forced labor camps in Shreveport, La.
“I feel like there is strength in numbers. If all the church groups work with these other organizations to fight human trafficking crimes – we can rid our country of these disgusting and demoralizing actions.”
Most groups are based in the U.S. because there are forced laborers and sex workers in every state in the nation, according to the study by the U.S. State Department.
There are several kinds of sex trafficking networks in the United States. One involves Asian immigrants, and it often breaks down into three kinds of services: the massage parlor, the brothel hidden in a legitimate business, and the so-called "hostess clubs" or "room salons," which are modeled after men's clubs.
"As many of you know, human trafficking is a byproduct of conflict. It is a threat to national security, public health, and democracy," the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero said in remarks made during the release of the report, according to a U.S. Department of State transcript.
An estimated 12.3 million people were subject to some form of bondage last year including forced labor, bonded labor, and forced prostitution, according to the U.S. State Department’s last report.
Nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits are now enlisting the aid of international, national and local religious groups in the fight against human trafficking.
"Human trafficking is the third-largest global criminal enterprise, exceeded only by drug and arms trafficking,” Laura Lederer, a leading State Department official on human trafficking, said at a conference on the issue.
"We have some very basic statistics on human trafficking. We've looked at this mainly as a law enforcement issue and as a human rights issue. But it is also an industry issue. By some estimates, the industry is growing, and the worldwide illegitimate gain from the industry is as high as $32 billion per year."
Louise Shelley, the founder and director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center in Washington, said the vast majority of sex-trafficking victims in the United States are Americans and predominantly young Americans.
She estimated their number as ranging from 100,000 to 300,000, compared with imported sex workers numbering between 14,500 and 17,500 from Asia, Latin America, and the former Soviet-bloc countries.
“Most of these young sex workers are teenage runaways,” Shelley said.
"And this is something that we're not paying enough attention to. We have an enormous problem of victimization in our country, and a vulnerability, and we're not talking enough about it, and we're not doing enough about it."
Who are the traffickers?
Shelley said there are many kinds, according the Federal Bureau of Investigation, they range from organized crime syndicates, smaller family operations, common pimps, and motorcycle gangs.
Experts say human bondage generates more than $42.5 billion annually worldwide.
They say lawmakers must improve the situation by collecting better data on cases and by forming task forces like those that combat narcotics.
Human rights advocates recommend better training of U.S. federal agents and prosecutors in victim protection as well as in identifying, investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases.
The Commission on Human Rights for the United Nations says the problem requires cooperation between and coordination of governments, transnational entities, non-profits, and faith-based organizations to deter those who would exploit their fellow humans.
Steps have been taken in the right direction, but a solution remains elusive.
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Note: The cable network CNN has been sponsoring a Freedom Project aimed at “ending modern-day slavery,” and on June 26 it will broadcast a one-hour documentary, “Nepal’s Stolen Children,”reported and hosted by actress Demi Moore.