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International expert visits Worthington for presentation on human trafficking

Lauren Ryan, anti-trafficking services program manager for the Northern Tier Anti-Trafficking Consortium, leads a information session Tuesday in Worthington. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)

By Gretchen O'Donnell

WORTHINGTON — A standing-room-only crowd filled the conference room at the University of Minnesota Extension offices Tuesday as Lauren Ryan of the International Institute of Minnesota spoke on a topic that many people would rather sweep under the rug — not because they approve of it, but because it’s terrible to think about.

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Human trafficking, however, cannot be ignored. Entailing two separate components — sex slavery and labor slavery — human trafficking occurs across the nation and world … and yes, it even occurs here in Minnesota.

“In Minnesota we see labor trafficking in the workplace, in households, in restaurants, in factories, hotels and agriculture,” said Ryan, program manager of Anti-Trafficking Services for the Northern Tier Anti-Trafficking Consortium.

“The victims may be U.S. citizens or foreign nationals,” Ryan continued. “We see sex trafficking on the street, in massage parlors, strip clubs, escort services, in online exploitation and brothels. It could be happening in the house next door.”

With a matter-of-fact tone that did not over-emotionalize the issue, Ryan talked about the most vulnerable populations.

“African Americans and Native Americans are disproportionally affected by trafficking,” she explained. “So are minors. Human trafficking is not limited to women or to runaways. Men can be trafficked for agricultural work. Children are sold to pimps. Domestic servants are coerced into working for no pay, 24/7, because they’re afraid that their families back home will be hurt if they don’t comply.

“Often, people don’t even identify themselves as victims of a crime. They think that this is normal.”

In 2012, a total of 15,362 phone calls came in to the Polaris Project hotline, a national phone line for victims and survivors of human trafficking. Ninety-five of those calls were from Minnesota, and that’s up from 78 Minnesota calls in 2010. Not everyone calls the hotline, though.

“We dealt with 587 sex trafficking cases in 2011 and 52 labor trafficking cases,” Ryan said.

The International Labor Organization estimates that 20.9 million people are enslaved worldwide. It says approximately 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders annually, and that 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked within the U.S. alone.

Statistics also say that within 48 hours of running away, a child will be propositioned for sex.

“Anyone under the age of 18 who is taken in for prostitution is automatically treated as a sex trafficking case,” Ryan said. “They are victims, not criminals.”

Humans are very valuable resources to traffickers.

“Humans can be used over and over again — unlike drugs, which you take and then it’s gone,” Ryan said.

Foreign-born victims of trafficking have special needs that are compounded by the fact that often they don’t qualify for financial services, especially if they’re undocumented workers. Still, there are certain visas for which non-citizen victims of criminal activity may qualify.

Interestingly, being “undocumented” is not limited to foreign-born victims of this type of abuse. Often, in a demonstration of the power and control traffickers typically exert over their victims, the abused will have their drivers’ licenses or other forms of identification taken away by their trafficker. In fact, this can be a sign that something is wrong.

“Having no access to documents is definitely a red flag,” Ryan explained. “It may mean that their trafficker is withholding the papers so that the person is further under his control.

“Also watch for signs of assault, of malnourishment, of body language,” she added. “Victims may be paid little or nothing or owe huge debts to a person. They may suddenly have a new and controlling boyfriend, have a change in their social circle, or suddenly display a lack of interest in school. They may have very little knowledge of the town they’ve lived in for five years because they aren’t allowed outside of the house without their boyfriend. They may have a well-rehearsed story to explain their lives.”

Ryan said the job of concerned citizens is to poke holes in such stories. If something seems “not right” with an acquaintance, then questions such as, “What type of work do you do? Can you quit your job if you want to? Where do you sleep and eat?” are important, and should be asked apart from their companion(s) if possible.

“Victims may think they’re truly in love with their trafficker,” Ryan said. “They will be afraid. They might not even think anyone will believe their story. They may blame themselves for their situation. They are often unaware of the resources available to help them.”

Once a victim of a human trafficking is identified, the services needed are very close to those required by victims of domestic abuse.

“We do a safety assessment,” Ryan explained. “We give them trauma and/or chemical dependency counseling. They may have doctor or dental issues that we help with. We give them legal assistance, and we provide places for them to live.

“Victims of trafficking can be your neighbor, your classmate, your fellow employee,” she said. “If you suspect that someone you know is a victim of trafficking, be cautious. Contact a direct service provider, law enforcement officer or call a hot line. Educate yourself so that you know what to look for. Be the eyes and ears in your community. Don’t keep quiet.”

Sara Wahl, director of the Southwest Crisis Center in southwest Minnesota, is hopeful more local discussion on this topic will be forthcoming. The center has contracted with the Northern Tier Anti-Trafficking Consortium to provide a wide variety of services to victims and survivors of both labor and sex trafficking in Minnesota.

“We are the only provider of this service in southwest Minnesota,” Wahl said. “It is so easy to think that trafficking happens only in a big city, but it also happens in small towns.”

For further information, contact the Southwest Crisis Center at 376-4311 or email, or call the national hotline or Polaris Project at 1-888-373-7888 or the Minnesota hotline at 1-866-223-1111.