Human Trafficking in New Jersey

February 11, 2013

Human trafficking impacts innocent people – young and old – all around the world. Child soldiers in the Congo, sexual slavery in Southeast Asia, and even forced slavery here in New Jersey.

The footage we see on television or the stories we read in a magazine often focus on the brutal treatment of innocents in countries a world away. In fact, human trafficking – or modern-day slavery – has spread much closer to home.

Due to New Jersey’s proximity to New York City, extensive transportation network, and diverse population, the State has, unfortunately, become a hub for all forms of human trafficking.

The plight of trafficked innocents is cruel no matter where it happens, yet its growth in our own neighborhoods and communities makes understanding the problem and potential solutions even more important.

Human Trafficking: The Problem

Today, more people are held in slavery than at any other time in human history.  Forcibly enslaved populations are exploited for profit in every country in what has become a $32 billion industry affecting more than 12.3 million people worldwide. The United Nations identified human trafficking as a crime against humanity with the anti-trafficking Palermo Protocol of 2003, garnering 117 signatory nations.

Improved coordination between governments and international organizations has increased awareness of the causes and consequences of human trafficking.  However, modern-day slavery has only accelerated as trafficking networks remain obscured by political structures, social stereotypes, and complicit law enforcement. In 2011, the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report increased previous estimates of human trafficking victims – including forced labor and other forms of trafficking – to 27 million men, women and children.

Traffickers will often coerce, defraud, force and recruit their victims for commercial sexual slavery or involuntary servitude. Victims of human trafficking can be disparate – from Congolese child soldiers to educated Caucasian women in the United States, and displaced orphans in Haiti to migrant domestic workers in Europe. While socioeconomic station and political conditions can heighten vulnerability and expose certain populations to greater risk for exploitation, the notion that human trafficking is confined by geography or demographics is a myth. Human trafficking is a global phenomenon that defies borders, government initiatives, international law and social stereotypes.

Human Trafficking In New Jersey

In 2004, New York Times writer Peter Landesman’s report “The Girls Next Door”, described the plight of four teenage girls trapped in endless cycles of abuse and sexual slavery in a Plainfield, New Jersey neighborhood. Landesman’s report highlights the unexpected realities about human trafficking that allow it to persist: victims are hidden in plain sight and often overlooked by community members because human trafficking “doesn’t happen” in places like Plainfield, New Jersey. Traffickers depend on this misconception in order to run their operations without scrutiny, suspicion, or the threat of law enforcement. Increased awareness of the realities of human trafficking – what it looks like and where it occurs – can lead to greater chances of victims receiving the help that they need and perpetrators being brought to justice.

Human Trafficking - image of dark alleyLandesman’s report exposed one of many human trafficking incidents in the state. Crisis hotlines sponsored by the Polaris Project – an anti-trafficking organization with offices in New Jersey – received nearly 800 calls about suspected human trafficking cases in New Jersey between 2007 and 2012. According to the Project’s data, over half of the calls reported victims of sexual slavery and 178 victims were identified.

Supporting anti-trafficking programs is an opportunity to effect multilevel change. Local efforts toward prevention, protection, and prosecution can subvert national and international trafficking networks. Local and international anti-trafficking organizations are committed to building long-term solutions while providing immediate assistance for those in need. For example, the Polaris Project works with New Jersey law enforcement to identify victims and to provide assistance with medical, housing and financial needs for victims coping with unimaginable trauma. Anti-trafficking programs like Polaris also provide extensive training and education for on-the-ground advocates and task forces.

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Human trafficking is among the great humanitarian crises of the 21st century, but it’s one that can be stopped — no matter where it occurs. In New Jersey, individual and community support for victim services is particularly essential in a state that receives no federal funding for anti-trafficking organizations.