Human trafficking is defined by The United Nations as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” These words envelop the problem of human trafficking around the globe and can even be traced back to Michigan.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice approximately 600,000 to 800,000 men, women, and children are trafficked around the world annually, which includes an estimated 17,500 victims of human trafficking brought to the United States. Of these numbers, about 80 percent are women and children. One reason for such large numbers of child victims cited by the UNICEF web site was that children can be easily manipulated to provide cheap labor or sexual exploitation due to its lucrative nature. According to the U.S. Department of State, human trafficking is the second fastest growing criminal industry only second to drug trafficking. The amount of money generated from this is estimated at more than $32 Billion.
Human trafficking in the United States includes both domestic trafficking within the U.S. borders, and transnational trafficking into the U.S. for various reasons. The majority of victims trafficked from overseas are brought from Africa, Asia, India, China, Latin America and the former Soviet states such as the Ukraine. According to the Polaris Project, an anti-human trafficking organization involving joint efforts between the United States and Japan, the average age of a sex trafficking victim when he or she is first exploited by their trafficker is 13. The Polaris Project implements eight different strategies to help combat human trafficking and modern day slavery. These strategies include victim outreach and identification, victim services and protection, policy advocacy, prevention and youth empowerment, task force/infrastructure-building, technical assistance, leadership development and grassroots community mobilization. The eight different strategies were designed to engage the community and victims through direct services as well as social change and movement initiatives according to the Polaris Project web site.
Michigan has had its fair share of human trafficking incidents over the years as well. In January of 2007, two Greenville, Mich., residents were arrested on federal charges of human trafficking and immigrant violations when they allegedly trafficked a young woman, held her against her will and forced her into servitude.
Later that same year a Detroit man was sentenced to 14 years in prison and to pay more than $1.5 million for serving as a ring-leader in a human trafficking conspiracy. The man, 27 year old Aleksandr Maksimenko, forced women from Eastern Europe to work as strippers and exotic entertainers in Detroit night clubs.
These two incidents happened in 2007, yet the official ban on human trafficking in Michigan was still a new advancement and didn’t come until 2006, when Governor Jennifer Granholm signed House Bill 5747 into law on May 25. This law now punishes perpetrators of human trafficking in Michigan. The maximum sentence an individual can get if convicted is life in prison if the activity results in the death of another. They can receive up to 15 years if a violation causes injury, and up to 10 years in other cases. Additionally, Michigan currently has five new bills in the Legislature in an effort to continuously update the law for increased effectiveness.
Prior to these bills however, the first anti-trafficking act passed in the U.S. in the year 2000 was a victim-based law that provided an official definition of human trafficking and implemented different penalties with which offenders can be prosecuted. Despite the variety of different laws and punishments for human trafficking, Associate Director for the National Center for Community Policing, MSU Criminal Justice professor and Co-Coordinator for the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force Jane White says that it’s estimated that only one percent of those who traffic have been criminally charged and punished in the U.S. She explains that this is due to “many factors, including the inability to identify trafficking situations and victims who are so fearful of their captors that they fear for their lives and their family’s lives back in their home country.”
The Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force was founded under the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State two years ago. Members of the organization include 70 different representatives at the federal, state, and local law enforcement levels as well as prosecutors, community members, and other victim service providers. All of these participants come together “to coordinate, collaborate, and partner in order to identify, prosecute, and rescue victims of this modern day slavery”, said White. The task force is always busy though as White points out. “Presently a major focus of the Task Force is disseminating information to local communities and law enforcement,” she said.
Though it may seem alien to some people, Michigan is considered a hot spot for human trafficking because of the boarders it shares with Canada.
“With the stress on the Mexican-U.S. border, victims are being brought through Detroit, the Sault and Port Huron,” said White. She also cites the fact that Michigan is a big agricultural state, and depends upon large numbers of farm labor workers which can be brought in from outside the country or from within its boarders.
Students at Michigan State are affected by human trafficking as well, if not just as citizens. White tries to make people aware of the more subtle, unintentional ways that everyday citizens could possibly be facilitating human trafficking and modern-day slavery.
“Whether it may be the dishwasher in the restaurant, kids on the corner selling cheap trinkets, buying, wearing, eating and using the products of slave labor, from cell phones [to] laptops,” White says that “understanding that trafficking is happening in Michigan is critical.”
Mary Flores, a Child Protective Services (CPS) Investigator and former Director of Refugee Services at the Refugee Development Center in Lansing commented on the fact that modern-day slavery in Michigan consists of an extensive web of operations among the traffickers.
“All of the players in the trafficking world in Michigan are connected,” Flores said.
The traffickers do a good job hiding their activities from the public view, with many people not even realizing this is an issue in Michigan. Paul Lounsberry, a criminal justice sophomore at MSU says that he “didn’t know human trafficking was a problem in Michigan, I don’t see it in the local news much anyway.” A common goal that all anti-human trafficking organizations and movements share is to gain awareness of the problem and make resources available to all those who wish to educate themselves or others, and also to provide assistance to victims of human trafficking. As a result of this information, if you wish to report a tip; to connect with anti-trafficking services in your area; or to request training and technical assistance, general information, or specific anti-trafficking resources, please contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.