NEW YORK CITY (BP) — Human trafficking victims are reaching out for help in increasing numbers, according to an advocacy group that operates a national text and phone call center.
More than 1,600 survivors of human trafficking reached out for help in 2015 — a 24 percent increase over 2014, according to the nonprofit anti-trafficking organization Polaris. The hotline also takes calls from concerned friends, family and bystanders who witness suspected human trafficking incidents.
“From the domestic servant forced to work for little pay who required emergency shelter to the young girl made to sell sex online against her will who texted us for crisis support, survivors of human trafficking are reaching out to the national hotline more than ever,” Polaris CEO Bradley Myles said.
Contact with the national hotline can be made by SMS to 233733, texting “help” or “info,” or by phone to 1-888-373-7888.
The website for the Polaris-operated National Human Trafficking Resource Center is www.traffickingresourcecenter.org.
Polaris’ 2015 annual report offers insight into a problem that is hard to quantify. The disparity between estimates of trafficking victims and the number of confirmed cases has fueled a debate about whether the problem had been exaggerated. The agencies most likely to encounter higher numbers of victims — local law enforcement and social services — are not uniform in their data collection and reporting. And the anonymity of the Internet shields pimps from prosecution while it broadens their reach to buyers.
The Internet also makes victims invisible to everyone except their pimps and johns — until they make a call or send a message asking for help.
“Given the fact that victims of human trafficking don’t normally self-identity, it’s likely there will always be a marked difference between the estimates and the number of confirmed cases,” anti-trafficking advocate Raleigh Sadler said in comments to Baptist Press.
“However, through providing the tools whereby anyone can learn how to identify and respond to potential victims of human trafficking, Polaris hopes to lessen this disparity. Their website and national hotline number have been invaluable in empowering everyday people to actually contribute towards the end of human trafficking,” said Sadler, director of justice ministries for the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association and leader of the Let My People Go movement to assist churches in NYC and beyond to combat human trafficking.
In 2015, Polaris’ National Human Trafficking Resource Center received 21,947 calls, 1,535 online requests, 1,275 emails and 1,472 SMS messages on its BeFree Textline. Human trafficking took place in all 50 states. The top venue for sex trafficking was commercial front brothels while the top industry for labor trafficking was domestic work. In total since 2007, 25,696 trafficking cases have been reported through the hotline.
Greater publicity accounts in part for the increase in calls. Thirty states now require business such as strip clubs, motels and truck stops to display national human trafficking hotline numbers in prominent places. In a number of states, failure to do so can lead to fines as high as $5,000.
Researchers at Texas Christian University, Northeastern University and Colorado College published a report in January that found requiring the NHTRC number to be posted in public areas was the most effective way to increase arrests related to human trafficking. The researchers also found that nearly every aspect of state investment in human trafficking — from training law enforcement to forming a task force — had a significant impact on increasing state arrests for the crime.
Anti-trafficking organizations have tried to make the hotline number more visible for years. One effort has focused on putting bars of soap in motels and strip clubs. The soap’s wrapper asks: “Are you being forced to do anything you do not want to do?” and includes the trafficking hotline.
Theresa Flores, 49, a sex trafficking survivor, came up with the soap idea.
Flores was drugged and raped in high school by a fellow classmate and his older cousins. They trafficked her for more than two years, threatening to reveal humiliating photos of her rape if she told her parents or called the police. The abuse ended only after Flores’ family relocated to another state. Like many sex trafficking victims, Flores didn’t know where to turn or who to call.
While experts are closer to understanding both the scope of human trafficking as well as what works in combatting it, public opinion remains conflicted.
“Human trafficking feels overwhelming to people, but the level of concern among people is not equal,” Amy Farrell of the Northeastern University said. “On the whole, they think it’s a terrible thing, but they don’t know how to fix it and think it should be someone else’s problem.”
For information about identifying and responding to potential human trafficking abuses, see the “Recognize the Signs” resource by Polaris at https://polarisproject.org/recognize-signs.