A pimp’s brand on a survivor of sex trafficking in the US / BBC

In 2010, President Barack Obama made January National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month. It’s incredible that anyone needs to be aware of slavery 157 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. But it still exists. “Human trafficking erodes personal dignity and destroys the moral fabric of society,” said President Trump when he launched this year’s commemoration. “It is an affront to humanity that tragically reaches all parts of the world, including communities across our Nation. Each day, in cities, suburbs, rural areas, and tribal lands, people of every age, gender, race, religion, and nationality are devastated by this grave offense.”

MercatorNet interviewed a paediatrician who has worked with victims, Dr Joseph Zanga, of the American College of Pediatricians.


MercatorNet: Is human trafficking a problem in the United States?

Dr Joseph Zanga: The United States has been ranked among the top three nations of origin for victims of human trafficking in 2018, according to a recent report by the State Department and is the number one consumer of sex trafficking worldwide.

Human trafficking is an industry taking in more money each year than many Fortune 500 companies. This is a crime hidden in plain sight, aided by the addiction our children have to their tablets and, especially, their smart phones. Because their brains aren’t fully developed until their mid-20s, they are easy prey for traffickers who recruit very professionally on social media. Because of the “toxic stress” and the adverse childhood experiences that many of our children live with, the bait that professional traffickers dangle is hard to resist.

These figures are incredible. Who is being trafficked?

For sex-trafficked women (sex-trafficking in the US is mostly women) the average age is 14, but I’ve encountered victims as young as 12. That is less true for labour trafficking and varies with region. In farming areas those trafficked are mostly young adult to middle-aged men. In metropolitan areas the trafficking is for domestic help and is mostly young to middle age women. They come from all backgrounds.

However, trafficked children are often known to the state or local child welfare system (often for being sexually abused). Over 90 percent are chronic runaways and more than 70 percent are substance abusers (often “hooked” by a trafficker to get them into “the life”). 

In the United States, it is estimated that up to 300,000 children are victims of sex-trafficking, also known as Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST). Countless others are victims of additional forms of exploitation, especially forced labour. Some of these children have been brought to the United States illegally, while thousands are US citizens as young as 12, who have been recruited, abducted, abused, or exploited into the sex trade or forced servitude.

You’ve had a lot of experience in rescuing kids from traffickers. What has your involvement been? How has it marked your life?

In my paediatric primary care practice I have encountered adolescent girls being trafficked by their parents (mostly their mothers). It was often, though, in the context of my work with Child Protective Services and abused or neglected children. While I continued with the trafficking issue, I eventually asked a colleague to chair our hospital Child Protective Committee. I was “burned out” by the cruelty inflected on children by their parents or guardians.

Is it really slavery? How do American kids in 2020 become “enslaved”?

If you accept the UN’s “Palermo Protocol” which defines all human trafficking as, “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability”, then it is slavery. It is also defined in much that same way by various legal entities in the United States.

Enslavement is easy. We have in the US a culture of entitlement. Desirable goods are all around us and some young people believe that they should have unlimited access to all of them. Add to that the absence of a mother and father in the daily lives of many children. Add to that their smartphone or tablet connection to the world. So it’s easy to see how they can become victims.

A friendly (often false) face and story on their device, a meeting somewhere “safe”, access to things the child wants, offers of the love and attention missing in their homes: all these give some kids a reason to run away with the male or female face and story.

There were, and likely still are, web sites designed to procure trafficking victims. These and other items mentioned in the UN Statement are often enough to bind a child to “the life”.

Does it have anything to do with kids’ troubled family life?

Yes, that does play a part though “troubled” may be as simple as parental absence. It is said that American children, for a variety of reasons, have fewer than 40 minutes a day one-on-one with a parent.

How is it like and how is it unlike the chattel slavery experienced by African-Americans? I’ve read that some kids are “branded” with tattoos.

Traditional slavery has existed throughout human history. It’s part of man’s inhumanity to man. So these enslaved and trafficked victims are more alike than unlike other chattel slaves. And, yes, they are sometimes branded with tattoos to identify their belonging to the trafficker.

You live in a small city in Georgia. Does slavery exist there?

I used to live in Columbus, Georgia, a city of about 200,000. I now live in an even smaller city in central North Carolina. Human trafficking did exist in Columbus and it exists here as well. Smaller cities are sites for trafficking and also warehouses to “store” trafficked individuals for shipment to larger cities during major sporting events, large conferences, and the like. All the smaller cities need is good road connections to the larger cities and an uninformed community.

How can you recognise modern-day slaves? Are all of them involved in the sex trade?

Trafficking is both sex and labour, usually separate but sometimes combined. Recognizing key indicators of human trafficking is the first step in identifying victims and can help save a life. These indicators include:

♦ Disconnection from family, friends, community organizations, or a faith community.

♦ Sudden or dramatic changes in behavior.

♦ Inconsistencies in stories or explanations.

♦ Talks about wild parties and tries to recruit others to attend.

♦ Tattoos or branding.

♦ Frequent use of online dating/hookup sites.

♦ Older boyfriend or friends suddenly appear.

♦ Brags about or suddenly has money or expensive items.

♦ Engaging in commercial sex acts.

♦ Bruises in various stages of healing.

♦ Appearing fearful, timid, or submissive.

♦ Lacking in freedom of movement or living under unreasonable security measures.

♦ Multiple cell phones with no explanation as to why.

♦ Fearful of law enforcement.

Is there anything that we can do to put an end to this horror?

To start, we need to change people’s thinking that prostitution is a victimless crime or, worse, that it should be legalized. Refusing to enforce the law supports that mistaken idea and makes it easier for pimps and traffickers. 

We should work to disrupt their activities — even briefly — and make their “business” more difficult and less profitable. We then need to work with victims to encourage cooperation with police against the pimp or trafficker while providing “rescue” when the pimp or trafficker is absent.

Here is where law enforcement, the courts and NGOs can be creative and more proactive.

Education is also key. The community needs to know that people are being trafficked locally and that it’s not a private or a consensual matter. That kind of thinking leads to traffickers being able to claim consent, which leads media to avoid publishing photos of the buyers. Lack of public outrage allows trafficking and the “advertising” of victims to continue.

An outraged public will recognize and report abuses, making it harder for traffickers to survive in our communities. A change in thinking by the public might also embolden victims and help them to recognize that they are victims.

One final thought. Drug addiction is an important factor. While working with abused children, I came across women who were prostituting themselves to have money to buy drugs. Their drug dealers were not involved in the prostitution. Several of my child abuse cases elsewhere involved parents prostituting their children to pay for their habit.

Dr Joseph Zanga is a paediatrician and a past President of the American College of Pediatricians.