Many people know the phrase “modern day slavery” but don’t realize it’s happening in their hometowns.
Florida state representative Rachel Burgin admits she was unaware of the problem’s severity until she attended a national conference in Washington, D.C. and sat next to a woman who started an international organization to stop human trafficking.
“She told me about her international work and the significant increase in human trafficking over the past few years. I was surprised to learn how pervasive the problem is.”
Pervasive indeed! When Burgin looked at a Department of Justice map that tracks where incidents of human trafficking are most prevalent, she was shocked to see a circle around Tampa Bay.
“Florida is one of the top three states for human trafficking, behind New York and California,” Burgin said. “And most of that activity is taking place right here in Tampa Bay.”
Human trafficking is defined as the commercial exchange and exploitation of humans. While many people are aware this exploitation includes capture and detention of people, usually women, for prostitution and pornography, they are less aware of people being forced into involuntary labor, servitude and debt bondage.
Today, 27 million people are enslaved throughout the world. This includes 2.5 million people in the United States. Each year, 600,000 to 800,000 more people are being trafficked worldwide, according to the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
Look around and pay attention
Can the average citizen do anything to stop this exploitation? Yes. Pay attention to the mundane.
Burgin was surprised to find that innocuous storefronts along streets familiar to her, such as Kennedy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway, are actually fronts for human trafficking operations.
“You see them all over the place, massage parlors with signs that say they’re open until 2 a.m. seven days a week,” she said. “What kind of legitimate massage parlor is open until 2 a.m.?”
Other tell-tale signs are directions to a rear entrance that allows patrons stealthy entrance to the establishment.
“In these places, women are brought in, usually staying for no more than six days, and forced to perform sexual acts,” Burgin said. “The businesses are well-known by law enforcement. The problem is law enforcement must actually catch them in the act in order to prosecute them. And that’s very difficult to do.”
In 2009 Burgin authored a bill that increased the penalties for those convicted of human trafficking. The bill would require massage parlor employees to have identification on them at all times.
“One of the ways the traffickers hold these women hostage is by taking away their identities,” Burgin said. “Without a passport, visa or other documentation, these women can’t escape. They can’t travel, they can’t do anything.”
Her bill would require massage parlor employees to carry a valid U.S. passport, driver’s license or Employment Authorized Document. Law enforcement would then be authorized to request identification and determine who’s working illegally.
Burgin’s bill passed the House but failed to pass the Senate. Last year she joined forces with state Sen. Arthenia Joyner and reintroduced the bill. This time it passed the Senate but was rejected by the House.
What’s going on? Some elected officials–like some average citizens–care and some don’t?
“There are differing opinions on what’s important in Tallahassee,” Burgin said. “Because they don’t have human trafficking there, I think it’s not perceived as a big problem. It’s not an issue people want to talk about or even acknowledge it exists. But it’s a very big problem in Tampa Bay.”
Same old story. If it’s not happening in my backyard, I don’t give a rat’s patootie. If we don’t acknowledge it, it’ll go away.
Human trafficking is not going away any day soon. Thankfully, neither are Burgin and her bill. She plans to reintroduce it during the 2012 legislative session and believes increased national attention will bring it the attention it deserves. She has a potential ally in U.S. Sen. Mark Rubio, who is “also concerned that Florida is disproportionately affected by this scourge, requiring our own vigilance.”
Sadly, one reason too many Americans aren’t vigilant about human trafficking is that most victims are from other countries.
“They’re either tricked into coming here with the promise of a job or they are sold into slavery by a relative,” Burgin said. “They come from all different countries–Asia, the Middle East, Central America, Africa and Europe. Every person’s story is different but they have one thing in common–they are being forced to work in unpleasant environments under duress.”
That’s putting it mildly.
And now the victim profile is changing. “It used to be most of the victims were in their 20s,” Burgin said. “Now the biggest age group is 13 to 17 years old. It’s a horrible crime. And we need to find a way to protect these children.”