It is an industry hidden from view but the heinous crimes against innocent victims are going on right in our midst.
“Trafficking is quite prevalent,” said Asha Vaghela, deputy state attorney general and director of the New Jersey Human Trafficking Task Force. “North Jersey is a hub; (there’s) a lot of prostitution in Newark and Atlantic City, but no county is exempt.”
Labor trafficking males, mostly Hispanic migrant farm workers in Cumberland County significantly increase during the growing season, according to Kate Keisel-Stagnone, program coordinator of Polaris Project New Jersey.
Polaris also works with transgendered youth forced into survival sex or commercial sex, Latino residential brothels and Asian, Eastern European, Brazilian, Ukrainian and Russian women trafficked into massage parlors throughout the state.
“We did a 2010 survey and (found) there were over 525 massage parlors that are a front for commercial sex in New Jersey,” Keisel-Stagnone said.
New Jersey met three out of 10 criteria on the state ratings chart as of August 2010 when it came to key human trafficking provisions and Polaris is
currently working on getting safe harbor implemented here.
The legislation would prevent children from being arrested on solicitation charges under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), which brought to light what was then a little known crime domestically.
Polaris also compiled their “Dirty Dozen” – twelve states lacking basic anti-trafficking laws or failing to effectively combat the crime. The list includes: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Keisel-Stagnone said that half the clients they work with are domestic citizens trafficked into the commercial sex industry between the ages of 12 and 14.
It is the only client service office in the state for human trafficking victims and many of the young girls and boys they serve are locals.
“I think it’s a very common misconception that these are people coming from other places, not right down the street from us, whereas that’s what’s happening,” Keisel-Stagnone said. “It’s the girl next door.”
Modern-day slavery is alive and thriving, with more than 12 million people worldwide exploited, the United Nations estimates in its latest report.
This lucrative business nets a “commodity” used over and over again. The crime is widely under-reported and victims are vulnerable men, women and children, from every country, ethnicity and economic background. They are lured by promises of a better life and often unaware they’re being illegally persecuted. Traffickers typically use force, coercion or threats of violence, which is difficult to identify and disclose.
New Jersey is a prime breeding ground for trafficking because of its positioning near I-95, a major Eastern artery, as well as the proximity to airports in Newark, Philadelphia and Manhattan.
In 2005, the task force passed the New Jersey Anti-Trafficking Initiative and Vaghela said the goal has remained the same — to identify and rescue victims, improve the ability to detect trafficking, learn where it occurs and successfully prosecute those responsible.
“This really can and does happen everywhere in New Jersey and it’s not always in the urban areas, lots of traffickers are in suburbia,” said Amari Verastegui, former New Jersey State Director of the Not For Sale Campaign and Staff Advisor for Rutgers Campus Coalition Against Trafficking (RUCCAT).
Sex trafficking gets the most press, but Verastegui said labor exploitation is also a serious issue for the state and additional forms of trafficking exist here, including organ trade and mail order brides.
While men are pimps and traffickers, there are women who are increasingly becoming involved as intermediaries.
“The other issue we’re still struggling with is housing,” Verastegui said. “When victims are identified, we have limited places where they can go. Initially they’ve been placed in domestic violence shelters (and) hotels, but it doesn’t provide them with the long-term support they need.”
Consistent services are necessary for a year and a half to three years to get survivors to a point where they can rebuild their lives and trust. That’s the next key hurdle Verastegui said we have to solve.
According to Deirdre Mars, New York State Director of Not For Sale, the first step to getting involved on a personal level is to educate yourself.
The more you know about human trafficking, the easier it is to see how your own skills, talents and resources could be put to good use to help end it.
Take action by exploring the Not For Sale website and figuring out which platforms you resonate with — then get together with your friends, co-workers, family and other community members and do something! There are many options: screening a documentary, holding a fundraiser (via a Not For Sale platform or one of your own devising) or writing letters to companies and political representatives.
Your attitude is also an important part of the process: in the complex situations of life, Mars said a victim can all too easily be labeled a villain — "illegal immigrant," "prostitute" and so on.
How we label people affects how we, as a society, treat them and "villain" labels can cloud our judgment to the point where we can perpetrate further injustices while thinking that we're doing the right thing.
Jessica Minhas, Media Activist and Youth Advocate for The Blind Project recommends buying and endorsing fair trade products (companies that can guarantee no slave labor), supporting rehabilitation and conscious organizations, as well as discouraging the buying and selling of sex (where there is demand, there will be girls).
“We are deeply committed to raising awareness about human trafficking and, in particular, empowering youth audiences to become a part of the solution,” Minhas said. “Our entire team is comprised of volunteers so that 100 percent of funds raised can go back to the women.”