Human trafficking isn’t confined to movie plots in which Liam Neeson travels to foreign locales to reclaim his taken daughter.
According to Habibah Smith and Joy Medori, co-chairs of Delaware County Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition (DCAT), Delaware County is a prime location with a vulnerable population.
Delco’s location near major roadways, proximity to Philadelphia International Airport, and any number of hotels/motels makes it an attractive location for traffickers. A large middle and lower middle class population is also fertile ground for trafficking, especially those from dual-working and single parent households.
“The suburbs are where the money is. Suburban men are the ones who can afford to buy sex,” said Medori. “They are the ones going to hotels on their lunch break and after work. Traffickers know that and it’s happening here. We are a lot bigger than people give us credit for as a county and we are a prime location.”
DCAT provides education and increased community awareness; it advocates for improved legislation and services, and creates a coordinated response for human trafficking victims in the county. Members of the all-volunteer coalition include local and federal law enforcement, mental health professionals, students, educators, social service providers, faith-based, and community members.
Human trafficking is a personal issue for both Smith and Medori.
Smith is a survivor of sexual abuse and exploitation. However, at the time she was experiencing it, she was unaware.
“I just thought every 16 year-old had a 33 year-old boyfriend,” said Smith, a Drexel Hill resident. “I didn’t have many friends. The only friends I had, lived how I lived. I didn’t realize it was trafficking until I started working and saw it was not how every other 16 year-old lived.”
Medori had a friend who was trafficked when she was 16 and offered a job in a massage parlor despite having no experience.
“People find comfort in ‘not my neighborhood.’ Human trafficking is an issue anywhere,” said Smith. “It probably happens right in front of your face and you don’t notice it.” Smith pointed to a case of a 21 year-old Collingdale man who had two young girls in his grandmother’s basement.
DCAT is working to remove the preconceived notions of human trafficking. It isn’t limited to just younger women or those addicted to drugs.
“There isn’t a face to trafficking and, at times, we look to find to a face to make it more relatable. It is about the idea of a person in power exerting their influence in exchange for something valuable. That can happen to anyone,” said Smith who noted that older, well-educated people are also trafficked.
Awareness is also a key component of DCAT. Medori holds training sessions with hotel staff to educate them on trafficking. She says some hotels are uninformed about the matter, may see it as a victimless crime, and profit from it.
Medori has talked with survivors engaged in street prostitution who believe that’s safer than what trafficking looks like now because when sex buyers pick girls up on the street, other people see the transaction and, perhaps, a license plate number.
A hotel transaction, on the other hand, is more obscure and a person can get locked away and may not interact with anyone.
Some of the “red flags” DCAT says to look for are drastic changes in personality, a controlling, older significant other and during the “grooming stages,” an influx of gifts, cash, a different set of friends and isolation. Intervention is key during the early stages because the deeper one falls into the life, the harder it is for them to leave.
“It’s become a part of who they are,” said Medori. “The trafficker tells them what they are for, they have every single person who purchases them for sex confirming it. If they come from an abusive home, that’s what life has always looked like.”
There is also an expectation that people want to be rescued, when it isn’t always the case. Even when the person is removed from the situation, they are susceptible to return.
“We see where there is a child who is taken and introduced to an illicit way to gain a lot of money in a short amount of time by victimizing themselves,” explained Medori. “They are repeatedly raped for another persons profit. You have a child who is trafficked at thirteen and they no longer have a chance at a high school diploma, no job experience, severe trauma, maybe drug abuse, what kind of applicant are you putting forward to hire for minimum wage? They saw how much they have made for their trafficker in an hour’s time. They should have never been given the gauge of how fast illicit money can made.”
The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally: 68% of them are trapped in forced labor; 26% of them are children; 55% are women and girls. ILO estimates that forced labor and human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide.
In 2016, an estimated 1 out of 6 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims. Of those, 86% were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran. There is no official estimate of the total number of human trafficking victims in the U.S. Polaris estimates that the total number of victims nationally reaches into the hundreds of thousands when estimates of both adults and minors and sex trafficking and labor trafficking are aggregated.