Dewi had lived for decades as a victim of sexual exploitation in the red-light district of the Asia Rim.
Her introduction to modern-day slavery began when she fled an abusive marriage to find a job in the city. There, she was lured unknowingly into a life of prostitution. Trying to escape that life, she met a man who claimed to care about her.
Again, the vulnerable woman was forced to sell herself to earn money for him. Finally, after becoming pregnant, she found the courage to flee, without turning back.
Helping the vulnerable
She discovered a Southern Baptist Send Relief center that helped her leave the sex trade and equipped her to earn a sustainable income to support herself and her child.
Tess, a single woman desperate to care for her daughter, posted online about her vulnerable situation. A predator saw the post and lured Tess with the promise of a job. She discovered it was an escort service.
The only way Tess would see her little girl alive again, the predator told her, was to do what he told her. She was trafficked through five states until she found someone she could trust who encouraged her to call a human trafficking hotline number.
Through that call, Tess connected with the Baptist Friendship House in New Orleans, where she was able to reclaim her life and ultimately reunite with her family.
Each year throughout the world, from Asia to Alabama, men, women and children are victimized by human traffickers. The U.S. Department of Defense defines human trafficking as “a crime in which force, fraud or coercion is used to compel a person to perform labor, services or commercial sex.” It is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world because humans can be sold repeatedly every day.
“Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery,” said Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall. “It is a truly heinous crime, committed in the shadows — and in plain sight.”
The Department of Defense estimates more than 4.5 million people worldwide are victims of forced sexual exploitation, bringing in $99 billion annually. Some 21 million worldwide are victims of forced labor, bringing in $51 billion annually.
Sex trafficking is the most prevalent form of human trafficking in the United States, and Alabama is no stranger to this scourge.
‘Merely a commodity’
“It is reported that I-20 is a human trafficking super highway leading from Atlanta through Birmingham, and the majority of the trafficking that happens in the nation takes place in the Southeast,” said Holly Bunn, development officer for The WellHouse, a faith-based organization in Birmingham that works to rescue and restore human trafficking victims. A focus group study revealed there are more than 600 victims at any given time in Alabama, she added.
“It has been estimated that as often as every two minutes around the world a life is being bought and sold as if it were merely a commodity to be traded. Human beings — image bearers of God — are being captured, exploited and bound as modern-day slaves,” reports the website for the Tim Tebow Foundation, which is engaged in the global fight against human trafficking. “The exact numbers are hard to track, often inconsistent and presumably underreported, yet they are a global reality steadily trending higher at an alarming pace.”
Even the pandemic did not stop the blight. Just as much of the country has found ways to use technology for good in lieu of in-person gatherings, Kay Bennett, executive director of New Orleans’ Baptist Friendship House, believes traffickers have been doing the same to carry on their business.
In a statement on Jan. 11, Marshall announced an alliance of state, federal and nongovernmental partners to combat human trafficking in Alabama. Funded by a grant of $2.9 million from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Alabama Human Trafficking Alliance (AHTA) will share investigative resources to prosecute human traffickers and provide support and assistance to victims. Marshall’s promise to human traffickers in Alabama: “We are coming after you — and we will only become more relentless until the day we end human trafficking in Alabama.”
Alabama has had a human trafficking law since 2010. In 2014, through a resolution passed by the legislature, the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force was established. In 2016, the Safe Harbor Act was passed during Alabama’s legislative session to ensure that children caught up in human trafficking are recognized as victims, not criminals.
Once considered a big-city issue, human trafficking is spilling over into smaller cities and towns, with cases reported not only in Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile, Dothan and Montgomery, but also Fort Payne, Albertville, Guntersville and Madison County.
“The joint collaboration will allow for better data collection and service delivery to victims of human trafficking,” said David Pinkleton, who serves with END IT Alabama, a project of the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force.
Nongovernmental partners in AHTA include numerous members of the faith-based community, such as Trafficking Hope (traffickinghope.com), which developed the CARES (Coalition, Awareness, Rescue, Education, Services) initiative as well as organizations that directly serve human trafficking victims, including The WellHouse in Birmingham, Safe Harbor Youth in Huntsville and Hope Haven in Baldwin County.
Later this year, The WellHouse plans to open a home that will offer emergency accommodations, a safe house and recovery programming for trafficking victims under the age of 18.
A similar home, Camille Place, is under construction in the Monroeville area to help girls ages 6 to 19 who are victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
Once rescued, survivors have few options for rehabilitation programs, which is one reason “the faith-based community is so important in the fight against human trafficking,” Pinkleton said.
Carolyn Potter, CEO of The WellHouse, agreed.
“There is no greater community able to advocate for the eradication of human trafficking and the healing of its victims than the faith community, whose foundation is based on God’s love. Such love will speak out for justice and protest harm to others.”
Rescue and rehabilitation are the twin focus areas for those victimized by human trafficking, Pinkleton explained.
“In the short-term, human trafficking victims need delivery out of trafficking situations, a safe place to live and drug detox in many cases. It is also advised to take the help of a drug possession attorney to get legal counseling and represent the victim’s interests. In the long term, trauma-informed care is a must, along with life skills, education and workforce training. A holistic approach will allow these victims to reach a place of healing and productivity in society. This is a multiyear process and does not happen overnight,” he said.
If you suspect something, say something
If you suspect human trafficking, contact your local law enforcement agency, the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations Tip Line at 866-347-2423, the Department of Defense Inspector General Hotline at 800-424-9098 or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Names have been changed.
For information on how Baptist organizations assist victims of human trafficking, click here.
Share with others: