There are few issues in the world that invoke as much anger, stir up such a powerful cry of injustice, and unite people from from the Religious Right to the Feminist Left. It has been both glamorized and demonized by the media, turned Christians and actors into activists, and has stirred the American consciousness with images of abuse and objectification of people—men, women and children— torn from the land of their birth or community, stripped of their dignity and safety, and used for profit by labor or even sexual servitude. Human Trafficking is truly “capitalism at its worst.[i]”It is broadly defined as “the complete control of one person by another, through the use of violence—both physical and psychological.[ii]” It happens both locally and globally with victims not only imported or exported, but also simply moved around within the borders of our country.
Often victims of international human trafficking have been stripped of their documentation, and isolated by language barrier with little knowledge of their surrounding resources or rights. They are lied to and forced into debt bondage with the promise of a good job and an opportunity to improve their lives. Many who were once hoping to benefit their relatives find themselves working to keep those same relatives from harm while caught in a trap of helplessness and isolation. What is the response of the Church to such an affront on the value of another? What can an average person do that matters in the face of such a far-reaching global evil? Outlined below is a local, humble, and loving response to the quagmire that is human trafficking.
The Scope and Scale of Human Trafficking
It is estimated that there are 12.3 million victims of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation worldwide at any given time:
Forty-three percent are trafficked for purposes of commercial sexual exploitation, 32% are trafficked for the purposes of forced labor, and the remaining 25% are trafficked for a mixture of both or undetermined reasons. It is important to note that trafficking for the purposes of forced labor is likely more prevalent than the above numbers reflect as many nations are just beginning to include forced labor in their anti-trafficking legislation and statistics. Persons of all ages and genders are vulnerable to human trafficking. Women and girls make up 56% of persons trafficked for the purposes of forced labor while men and boys make up 44%. In terms of those trafficked for the purposes of forced commercial sexual exploitation, women and girls make up 98% and men and boys comprise 2%. Lastly, children constitute 40–50% of the overall forced labor population.[iii]
The most common source countries of traffic to the U.S. are Mexico (23%), Thailand (19.5%), the Philippines (16%), Korea (4%), and China (2.7%).[iv] Regardless of country of origin or destination common themes of the human trafficking experience are fraudulent recruitment, exorbitant travel and recruitment fees, the withholding of the victim’s visas and other identifying documentation, controlling and limiting the victim’s movements, threatening deportation, threatening to harm the victim or their family, and physically harming the victim.[v] The jobs that seem most common to traffic victims are prostitution, domestic service, agricultural work, work in small factories and workshops, mining, land clearance, selling in the market, and begging.[vi] Local police report that they encounter three to five victims of human trafficking per week; 80 percent of these are women and 50 percent are children.[vii]
Human trafficking is a truly global “industry” with an annual worldwide profit of $44.3 billion.[viii] Slavery in the U.S. is estimated to be a 13 billion dollar industry.[ix] Traffickers act as intermediaries to employers who seek certain characteristics in their specific workforces. A trafficker may never meet the actual users of traffic victims, because trafficking is largely a business-to-business industry.They take advantage of the lack of employment opportunities in one area and an abundance in another.[x] The trafficker can come from a variety of styles and types of groups from single individuals, small businesses, gangs, or family networks. This crime is increasingly perpetrated by sophisticated, organized criminal enterprises. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, trafficking in persons is now the second largest criminal industry in the world.[xi] Traffickers know that they are taking great personal risks in their participation in their chosen profession and their liberty and safety are constantly threatened from rivals, the family members of victims and local, national and international authorities.[xii]
As previously mentioned the main consumers of human trafficking are “employers,” people who want to use their victims to make money. Brothels and factories provide these types of situations, but also those seeking service workers such as nannies or other forms of domestic service. Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies identifies Portland’s commercial sex industry as the largest per capita in the nation.[xiii] Oregon is known for its legal sex industry, where the illicit sex industry hides behind the legal sex industry of strip clubs and adult stores.[xiv] The intersection of two interstate freeways, I-5 and I-84, situates Portland at the crossroads of major trafficking routes between Seattle, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. This port city’s proximity to two shipping waterways as well as to the Canadian border provides relatively convenient access for international and domestic traffickers.[xv] Commercial sex establishments line the I-5 corridor, as well as truck stops, where many of which facilitate transfers of sex trafficking victims between the Mexican and Canadian borders.[xvi]
The Spiritual Dimensions of Slavery and Oppression
Tragically,victims of human trafficking often experience a combined mix of that which victims of fraud, domestic or workplace violence, rape, kidnapping, extortion, coercion, or severe mental and emotional abuse experience. Their recurring suffering is often compounded by geographical or psychological isolation in an environment of fear and control. This can lead to intense spiritual trauma and a pervasive sense of hopelessness. Often the victim’s sole connection with the outside world is through their “master,” and this person can become the closest thing to a healthy relationship that they have.
Victims of an abusive and exploitative relationship can develop disassociation as acoping mechanism and long-term effects like that of Stockholm’s syndrome. This can increasingly lead to false narratives in the form of having their identity shaped by their captors. People who are forced to participate in unwanted acts that they find disgusting can become slowly demoralized and increasingly comfortable doing inappropriate and unhealthy things for survival. All of this can lead to apathy and a destructive emotional numbing in which a person is spiritually, emotionally and mentally compartmentalized in order to cope with their helplessness.
The Political and Societal Structures that Encourage Human Trafficking
Poverty is one of the main economic reasons human trafficking exists. The poor often lack economic means to fight for justice. Political instability and war also lend themselves to habitually seeing others through a lens of hatred in which life is cheap, brutal and short. In situations where the political system is constantly threatened or corrupt, there are often few legal channels to search for missing people or seek justice for those who have been exploited.
The local and global sex industry is quite an economic powerhouse. Our nation values freedom speech and freedom of expression and for better and for worse, the legacy of a voracious legal sex industry provides a shadow market for the illegal sex industry to thrive. Portland’s culture is often seen as leading the way in regard to sexual equality. We have championed causes like gender inclusive language and political correctness. Yet, our culture also strangely embraces sexualization as an extension of freedom of expression and often defends and celebrates lascivious behavior. This has lead to an increasing objectification of men, women and young people. It is common to see media and culture push the boundaries of a healthy view of sexuality. This leads us as a region to a certain fixation on sex in general and a lot of societal pressure to be engaging in sexual activities. Our culture has an increasingly Freudian preoccupation with sex, which has lead to a vacuum effect in which many people are increasingly willing to pay for sex while seeing this as morally innocuous. This provides the foundation for the market in which human sex trafficking competes for profit.
Culturally and societally, there is a systemic increase in isolation and loneliness. The sexual revolution of the 60’s and its subsequent fallout have left us with many good things, but its shadow side of divorce—coupled with the trend toward isolation in the digital age—has allowed us to drift further from one another. As a society, we largely do not know our neighbors or those who live on our block. This lack of intimacy allows human trafficking in our midst to go largely unnoticed as we spend more time behind the technological barriers from which we digitally communicate.
The Efforts of Others
The efforts of others toward peace tend to fall into recurring categories:education, community mobilization, policy reform, shelter, and services. Education is championed by many local NGO’s such as the Sexual Assault Resource Center (SARC) which goes into schools and raises awareness. Community mobilization is embodied by Scarlet Cord, which organizes volunteers and former victims into mentoring relationships that embody grace. The Law department at Willamette University has championed policy reform and puts out yearly reports on the effectiveness of Oregon’s legislation on human trafficking, and Catholic Charities have done much to counsel and advocate for those who are in need of immigration aid and have little economic means for legal justice. These groups have done truly noble things, but hard data on their effectiveness against trafficking is largely unavailable due to secrecy of the industry.
Shelter has been largely missing from the equation, but a new organization called Door to Grace is trying to provide beds and care for victims of human trafficking. In addition, the Daywalka foundation seems to be on the cutting edge of services that help move victims of human trafficking toward new opportunities to provide for themselves in safe and legal ways that are alternatives to prostitution and slavery. There is great need in all of these areas for resources and volunteers, as well as a growing montage of other local, regional,and international groups that overlap these ministries in multiple regards.
The largest and most shocking hindrances I see to ending human trafficking involve victims receiving legal justice. Often the slave/master relationship prevents pimps or other “employers” from being prosecuted due to control by fear and intimidation. Threats are not merely empty, often the traffickers follow through with their promises of violence. Charges are often dropped due to conflicting testimony or its withdrawl, or from the disappearing of key witnesses who go back into hiding. In addition, due to the nature and controversy of immigration politics in America, victims of trafficking are often treated as criminals instead of victims, and are deported before trials against their perpetrators can be built.
Time and money seem to rule the day: things like shelter and more permanent visas for victims tend to come only upon an immediate willingness to testify against their oppressors. A move toward helping the victim regardless of whether or not they will testify would be a wise one, allowing reluctant victims to recover and heal before they begin to seek justice. Visas that do not come with these contingencies are available but seldom used and this must change. [xvii] The stigma of immigration reform has largely paralyzed the government’s ability to respond to this often international and sophisticated crime, as well as a general political reluctance to seek justice for people who were born in another country.
Practical Ways for the Church to Get Involved
With regards to education, Churches should host movie nights and open forums about human trafficking to raise awareness. A social concerns or outreach committee could facilitate this, but secular human trafficking organizations should also be invited to use Church space to teach non-Christians as well. This could foster unity across the religious divide and allow opportunities for shared resources. Bible studies on slavery and exploitation can also be used to help raise awareness and shape a biblical response to injustice.
The Church should pay more attention to runaways and homeless youth, and invite people in for community meals without discouraging street kids, or resisting their participation in youth groups. The Church should organize opportunities for mentoring relationships between those already in the Church who have left the sex industry and those who have newly become Christians. Recovery ministries such as Celebrate Recovery are great opportunities to foster mentoring relationships like those of Scarlet Cord within the local Church. Also, forming prayer and encouragement groups specifically for victims, perpetrators, government officials and NGO’s involved in combating human trafficking would help give people of all ages a wonderful way to get involved.
At the level of more aggressive engagement, poster art or sidewalk chalk campaigns that raise awareness about human trafficking could be done locally, or better yet, in places like 82nd Avenue. These campaigns could bring messages of God’s redemptive love as well as practical information like help lines and other resources. These tactics could be used to help combat biases like eyeing minors as culpable or letting immigration policy trump justice. Churches could make information packets and business cards of available resources, and have them translated into the most common languages of traffic victims that they could distribute in cases of suspected trafficking or slavery. Even something as easy as driving down to areas that are frequented by prostitutes and taking tasteful pictures to pray with would help put a face to the problem and its reality. Some people go so far as to compare the red light ads on Craig’s List with missing persons photos to bring traffickers to justice. This has worked locally, and could easily be done by regular people who care about the issue. Organizing neighborhood watch groups and prayer walks around areas of frequent prostitution, adult stores and exotic dancing establishments would be fairly easy to do, if only the Church could work to remove the stigma surrounding sexual sin.
The Church is no stranger to political meddling and could use its healthy sense of activism to champion new ways of looking at immigration reform in the case of exploitation. We should find new ways to talk about immigration that include the reality of human trafficking and provide haven for victims so that justice can be brought to traffickers. Visa restrictions like the inability to change employers or form unions without being in the country illegally do much to empower traffickers[xviii], and comprehensive immigration reform is needed. Also legal reforms like changing trafficking to a class A felony[xix] and new legislation or expanding the RICO act to engage traffickers could be advocated by the Church whether they were a part of either party. New streams of funding for the problem of human trafficking should be pursued to meet the needs of victims, especially those who are not citizens and have no social safety net to aid them.
The Church should use its vibrant gift of hospitality to help provide temporary or even permanent housing for victims of human trafficking. Those within the Church who are thinking about adoption should be encouraged to think about whether they might specifically adopt traffic victims or potential victims from countries that are known for human trafficking. The Church should also raise awareness of the need for housing among trafficking victims, and give financially to those like Door to Grace who are attempting to meet the need.
While the Church may or may not be in a position to offer professional counseling or services, it can surely list local resources and make them available in the form of literature or web-based sources, and offer these resources in languages common to trafficking victims like Spanish, Thai, Philippine, Korean and Chinese where possible. The Church should also be willing to look into its surrounding resources deep enough that it could offer a list of counselors and immigration legal aid help it would be comfortable recommending, as well as interpreters in the local community. The Church should be more intentional about bridging the immigrant cultures that are frequent sources of trafficking by sharing space with local immigrant groups, hosting ESL classes and conversational groups in relevant languages,and inviting and participating in multi language worship services with immigrant communities.
Conclusion: Confronting the supernatural powers with truth
The Church can respond to the spiritual oppression of human trafficking in a number of ways, and with the Holy Spirit working toward reconciliation alongside us, there is no limit to creative and powerful answers beyond the ones mentioned here. The Church has been appointed with a ministry of reconciliation, and prayer may well be the most effective agent toward that end. Repentance and forgiveness between victims and traffickers is only possible through prayer. Praying for, and if possible with, victims and perpetrators of human trafficking to find hope and healing would be a great place to start.
The Church is responsible as the bearer of a message of freedom and hope, to challenge narratives of fear and control. We serve a Lord who sets people “free indeed” and the majority of what is holding back the proclamation of this message is its proclaimer’s bias of seeing sex workers and foreigners as somehow beyond redemption. This can make us unwitting contributors to the helplessness of victimization by our willful ignorance of exploitation and abuse. We as the Church must settle for nothing less than helping God to break patterns of slavery that hold people captive, pursue forgiveness in response to hatred, answer desperation with hope and a new identity, replace greed with a loving view of stewardship and responsibility, and exchange lust with an understanding of Imago Dei that leads to equality. In order to embody these ideals as visible truths we must not only actively pray for their reality—or pay lip service to the great ideals of our faith—but also to allow God to lead us with grace and truth as we physically go to the places the sex industry (licit or illicit) thrives and share in their brokenness.
[i] James Pope, “A Free Labor Approach to HumanTrafficking,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 158 (2010): 1855.
[ii][ii] Ibid, 1853
[iii] Stephanie Hepburn and Rita Simon, “Hidden in PlainSight: Human Trafficking in the United States,” Gender Issues 27 (15 May2010): 2
[vi] Elizabeth Wheaton, Edward Schauer and Thomas Galli,“Economics of Human Trafficking,” International Migration 48, no. 4(2010): 123.
[vii] Tristan Burnett, et al., “Modern Slavery in Our Midst:A Human Rights Report On Ending Human Trafficking in Oregon,” Prepared bythe International Human Rights Clinic at Willamette University College of Law(June 2010): 3.
[viii]Stephanie Hepburn, “Hidden in Plain Sight: HumanTrafficking in the United States,” 2
[ix]Elizabeth Wheaton, “Economics of Human Trafficking,” 124.
[xi]Tristan Burnett, “Modern Slavery in Our Midst,” 2.
[xii]Elizabeth Wheaton, “Economics of Human Trafficking,” 126.
[xiii]Tristan Burnett, “Modern Slavery in Our Midst,” 2.
[xv]Tristan Burnett, “Modern Slavery in Our Midst,” 3.
[xvi]Tristan Burnett, “Modern Slavery in Our Midst,” 3.
[xvii]Stephanie Hepburn, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” 7.
[xviii]James Pope, “A Free Labor Approach to Human Trafficking,” 1869.
[xix]Tristan Burnett, Modern Slavery in Our Midst,” 2.
*Burnett, Tristan, Keely Hopkins, Faith Morse, Danielle Pratt Danielle Pratt, Jessica Santiago, and Michael Bauer.“Modern Slavery in Our Midst: A Human Rights Report On Ending Human Traffickingin Oregon.” A Report Prepared by the International Human RightsClinic at Willamette University College of Law (June 2010).
Cheng, Sealing. “The Paradox of Vernacularization: Women’s Human Rights and the Gendering of Nationhood.” AnthropologicalQuarterly 84, no. 2 (2011).
Derluyn, Ilse, Valesca Lippens, Tony Verachtert, Willy Bruggeman, and Eric Broekaert. “Minors Travelling Alone: ARisk Group For Human Trafficking?” International Migration 48, no. 4(2009).
*Hepburn, Stephanie, and Rita Simon.“Hidden in Plain Sight: Human Trafficking in the United States.” GenderIssues 27 (15 May 2010).
Nikolic-Ristanovic, Vesna. “Supporting Victims of Trafficking: Towards Reconciling the Security of Victims and States.” Security and Human Rights 3 (2010).
*Pope, James. “A Free Labor Approach to Human Trafficking.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 158 (2010).
Uhl, Bärbel. “Lost in implementation? Human rights rhetoric and violations: a critical review of current European anti-trafficking policies.” Security and Human Rights 2 (2010).
Uy, Robert. “Blinded by Red Lights: Why Trafficking Discourse Should Shift Away from Sex and the ‘Perfect Victim’ Paradigm.” Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice 29, no. 1 (Winter2011).
*Wheaton, Elizabeth, Edward Schauer, and Thomas Galli. “Economics of Human Trafficking.” International Migration 48, no. 4 (2010).