Trafficking sounds almost benign, trivialized by its similarity to a simple word shared with vehicle congestion or the act of trading illegal products like guns. Human trafficking is a brutal form of slavery, claiming its victims from among the weakest members of society and often involving torture and rape. The better term is sex slavery, but even that is far too sanitized a word for what happens to those victimized by one of the world’s most horrendous crimes.
Modern-day slavery is an increasing problem. As laws and enforcement of drug and weapons trafficking improve, organized crime and petty criminals alike are moving into other enterprises with humans becoming a far easier commodity, offering lower risks and higher profits than weapons and drugs.
This is not something that is happening exclusively in dark alleys or foreign lands, it’s happening in luxury apartments in our own neighborhood. Earlier this year, 12 brothels in Bellevue were shut down and 16 people charged with promoting prostitution. As of October 20, 14 of the 16 people charged have pled guilty, most accepting jail sentences ranging from three to six months – quite possibly serving less time for good behavior.
It is worth repeating that as a punishment for beating, threatening and raping dozens if not hundreds of women and earning buckets of tax-free cash, these criminals will spend mere months in jail. Plus, there is only a risk of jail time since only a fraction of the criminals are ever caught. According to the non-profit Escape to Peace, King County’s 24-hour study revealed 27,000 people soliciting to buy sex from among 8,800 sellers, many of whom were likely sex slaves advertised by their pimps. These types of crimes are ubiquitous and often considered a lower enforcement priority.
What happens to the victims? These women are among the most vulnerable members of our society, often having no opportunities other than to return to prostitution. What else is a eleven-year old child, an undocumented immigrant or a mentally traumatized teen to do? They often lack an education or even basic English language skills. These survivors need sustainable support, education, economic empowerment and counseling but governments provide only limited resources.
Charities are stepping in. Earlier this month, Escape to Peace opened in Bellevue. It is King County’s only facility dedicated to helping victims of sex slavery. The center, opened by a survivor of sex trafficking, provides trauma therapy and teaches life skills, giving other survivors hope for a future that does not involve a return to prostitution. The non-profit’s puzzle piece logo symbolizes the collective effort to find a solution to this heinous crime, piece by piece.
The bigger issue remains. Slavery has always been about profit and the only way to end it is to make it a losing proposition for criminals. Someone would risk six months in jail for the potential to make millions of dollars, tax free but would probably feel differently about risking a sentence closer to six consecutive life sentences, without the possibility of parole.
Our society needs to continue to improve its efforts to eradicate slavery. As knowledge and outrage about sex slavery grows, the legislature and prosecutors will prioritize bringing an end to this atrocity. As we combat the crime with tougher prosecution, we also need to remember the victims.
Funding needs to be available to ensure that the victims can survive this unimaginable trauma without ending up in poverty. Supporting groups like Escape to Peace, opening up a dialogue about sex slavery and voicing concern to governmental representatives are all small steps that will help move things in the right direction and force criminals to end their sale of humans. This issue needs to remain at the top of the list of priorities, for only then will eradication be possible.