This spring Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell signed into law several measures to provide new protections against human trafficking and more severe punishment for those who engage in it. Before the introduction of the legislation, many people didn't realize how prevalent the crime is, especially in Northern Virginia.
The challenge now that the bill has become law is recognizing human trafficking and taking action when it occurs.
The nation's human trafficking watchdog is the Polaris Project in Washington, D.C. CEO Bradley Miles says Americans find it hard to believe that such crimes exist here.
He says Congress even defined "human trafficking."
"You got the child sex trafficking, the adult sex trafficking, and the labor trafficking," he says.
Sex trafficking involves online escort services, brothels disguised as massage parlors, and strip clubs. Many adult victims who were abused as children, witnessed violence or ran away from home, are easily recruited by traffickers.
Some are able to escape, and Polaris Project's Public Outreach Program Manager Andrea Austin says a lot of their clients are women, seeking refuge, wanting to start anew.
One victim, whose name is not released to protect her identity, was asked how she was caught up in sex trafficking
"I was looking for a job and a woman that live close to my house gave me a card with a phone number and asked me to call, because they were looking for housekeeping ladies," she says. "I called, and they gave me an address for an interview, and when I showed up in the house, a woman and man locked me up in the house, and they told me I was going to have sex with men, and I was going to have to make a lot of money for them."
And while she says she's lucky to be alive, her story depicts a victim with no life of her own for a long time:
"They locked me in a room, and I was forced to have sex with almost 25 men a day," she says. I couldn't live in that room at all, I had to eat and sleep there in that same bed where I had to be with those dirty men. I couldn't even change the sheets for weeks, I could only go to the bathroom in the morning and the evening. It was a dirty bathroom, the same one used by all those men. there were always people doing surveillance and I wasn't ever alone."
Sometimes victims can share information about their captors and help investigators shut down an operation. But Miles says traffickers operate underground, and a lead is often stale before it can be investigated.
When it comes to labor trafficking, Miles says even the child seen peddling magazines on the streets may be a victim of a form called "begging rings."
These children are often abducted, held captive, and forced to work for lengthy periods. He says all forms of this modern day slavery are very prevalent in the greater D.C. region, in part because Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia converge in an area with varying law enforcement policies. He also says it's where criminals prey on unsuspecting foreign nationals:
"Folks that might work for diplomats that live in the D.C. area, different forms of labor trafficking, summer visas, people who come in for summer or seasonal work, on the J-1 visa, we're seeing some concerns there," says Miles. Outside of Northern Virginia, the problem exists in other parts of Virginia with higher immigrant populations and where it's easier to smuggle people into the state.
Polaris Project and others are working to get this added to FBI and police training and they’re asking for state and federal laws that crack down on all trafficking forms. They also want residents to be aware and look for signs. The Polaris hotline answers calls 24-hours a-day in 170-different languages. Those who want to become involved or report a possible human trafficking case can contact the Polaris Project.
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