RALEIGH – “The ordinary person would have no idea that this is going on right under our noses.” – That’s how N.C. Senator Ellie Kinaird (D-Orange) describes human trafficking, one of the fastest-growing crimes in the world, and the subject of Senate Bill 353, the latest legislation she has introduced to battle this modern day slavery.
Each year human traffickers ensnare more than 800,000 new victims internationally and roughly 17,000 in the United States, according to U.S. State Department estimates.
The bill, filed March 2 with 14 sponsors, would create the N.C. Human Trafficking Commission, an 18-member body charged with exploring the specific ways the crime is occurring in North Carolina, its links to international and domestic trafficking and what policies, procedures or laws would help eradicate the problem. The commission would also contribute to efforts to educate law enforcement personnel, social service providers and the general public about trafficking so that perpetrators can be prosecuted and victim-survivors can get the help they need.
Until 2006, there was no state law against human trafficking. Kinnaird led the effort on both the criminal statutes legislation and the Protections for Victims of Human Trafficking Bill passed in the 2007-2008 session. Now she said it is time to get efforts coordinated with a commission that would help develop regional response teams and identify and help close gaps in the law enforcement and service provision system.
Kinnaird said Friday that she knows any bill to fund a new commission (S 353 calls for $200,000 over two years) faces an uphill battle considering the state’s budget shortfall, but this is one worth fighting for.
“Human trafficking is second only to drug trafficking in the world,” Kinnaird said. “And it is happening more than we realize in North Carolina, especially with Interstates 85 and 95.”
While statewide statistics on the crime are not yet available because the law is so new, Jennifer Stuart, a staff attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, told the Charlotte Observer last July that her agency is seeing an increase in cases. Many attribute the rise to North Carolina’s growing population and the availability of farm work, two factors that make it attractive to traffickers.
According to World Relief, a non-profit faith-based organization that provides services for trafficking victims, most of those held in bondage come from Southern Asia, Latin America and other regions where “poverty breeds desperation.” Many are smuggled into the United States.
These are not illegal immigrants, Kinnaird points out; they are refugees and kidnap victims.
Recent cases in the Tar Heel state include a sex ring in the Triangle area, a case involving some two dozen Thai farm workers in Johnston County, a massage parlor case in Union County with ties to Korea, and one involving a Chinese restaurant in Durham.
“We think of immigrant victims mostly as Hispanics and some victims are from Mexico or come in through Mexico, but we also have them from the Far East,” Kinnaird said. “Some from families who, sadly enough, sell their children or more often allow them to be taken because they are promised they will go to America to get a good education and a good home.”
She said the Thai farmers were told if they would pay $10,000 each (which for many meant selling all they owned and taking out loans), they could come to the United States and become wealthy farmers here. Instead, their passports and return plane tickets were taken and they were housed in a storage building in subhuman living conditions.
“There have also been cases from Eastern Europe and Russia where traffickers place an ad in the paper for a nanny. When they go to respond to the ad, they are taken to the U.S. and all their documents are taken from them,” Kinnaird said. “They find themselves in bondage and see no way to get free.”
Even if victims are not physically bound, most can’t speak the language or are afraid of the police, so their plight goes unreported.
“In some of these situations, the victims are told that if they seek help, their families back home will be killed. They can’t even imagine how to begin to escape,” the Senator said. “It is a vicious nightmare for these people.”
She first learned of the prevalence of human trafficking at a training event sponsored by the Women’s Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., and began coordinating efforts with other lawmakers and a number of both federal and statewide organizations from the law enforcement and human services arenas. She said a study group set up in the Attorney General’s office has evolved into RIPPLE: The NC Human Trafficking Task Force and has continued to work diligently on the issue, as have organizations such as the Carolina Women’s Center, which has sponsored human trafficking conferences, NC Stop Human Trafficking and The Justice Center. Legal Aid runs a program called the Battered Immigrant Project to help victims. And earlier this year, the Soroptimist of Raleigh, a women’s civic group, hosted a forum on human trafficking.
If Kinnaird’s bill passes, the governor would appoint members from the State Bureau of Investigation, the State Highway Patrol, the Attorney General’s Office and other law related bodies, while General Assembly leaders would name the remaining members from a number of state departments and other agencies, from hospitals to faith-based shelters or benefits organizations. Many would likely come from the already established RIPPLE task force.
Even before Senate Bill 353 comes up for debate, Kinnaird said there is plenty that the faith-based community can do to get involved.
Since trafficking victims often fall through the cracks of state agencies designed to help only legal North Carolina residents, churches and other organizations can stand in the gap, providing temporary shelter and services while legal documentation like visas and residency issues are worked out. Another goal for churches should be to help inform their congregations about the issue and encourage them to speak out if they see suspicious behavior that leads them to believe someone in their community might be a victim of human trafficking.
“This is an area where the Body of Christ should be in the forefront, reaching out to help these people who have been so poorly treated and who are truly among the most helpless in our state,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina.
Christians across the state should contact their legislators and ask then to support Senate Bill 353, which is expected to be referred to the Subcommittee on General Government.