Conference: We all can help to stop human trafficking

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, March 23, 2014

Do you think your life has nothing to do with human trafficking? Think again. Human trafficking — the practice of procuring or trading in human beings, usually for sexual or labor purposes — is the second largest category of international crime, according to the U.S. government, and it reaches everywhere.

It is in factories in the United States and overseas where women and children work in sweatshop conditions making clothes; in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo where they extract coltan, a necessary material for the cell phone in your pocket; on streets and in brothels where girls as young as 13 and 14 years old are sold by their pimps; and in suburban homes, where a young nanny brought in from overseas might not be allowed to leave.

And just by being aware of it, ordinary people can help stop it.

That is the message that IBVM Sister Jean Okroi hopes people will take away from the “Human Trafficking: What Can I/We Do?”conference March 29 at Catholic Theological Union, 5416 S. Cornell Ave. Sister Jean leads Illinois Religious Women Against Human Trafficking, which is hosting the conference that will include presentations by survivors of human trafficking and by people in the law enforcement, medical and social services fields.

“I don’t want people to come and see there’s this problem and leave them with nothing they can do about it,” Sister Jean said.

Sister Jean first became involved in the human trafficking issue 11 years ago when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops invited women religious to take part in a conference on the topic in Baltimore. She went and never looked back.

Now people are starting to become more aware of trafficking as a problem, with news reports about it and trials of men accused of trafficking in young girls for sex, she said, and the growing awareness is a good thing. But it hasn’t ended it.

“No one on the streets is by themselves,” Sister Jean said, adding that traffickers often will use tattoos with their names or even bar codes to “brand” their victims, who they see as their property.

Other traffickers provide laborers for industries including restaurants and nail salons, construction and agriculture and domestic labor.

Okroi said her goal is for people to be aware that trafficking happens, and to say something if they become suspicious. She shared an anecdote about a suburban man who often noticed a young Nigerian woman in his neighbor’s yard caring for the children, but never saw her leave the home. Eventually, he told a police officer friend, who got the investigation started. It turned out the young woman had been trafficked as a nanny.

“They tell people that they’ll be working as a nanny or in a restaurant,” Okroi said. “They don’t tell them they’ll be working all day, every day, for no money and that they’ll take their papers. They are totally controlled.”

The result is modern-day slavery, with victims unable to find recourse because they are isolated from the outside world, and often told that they will not be believed or that they will be punished if they complain.

Okroi said that it’s most important for first responders such as police officers and emergency room workers to be aware that the people they meet might be victims of trafficking. Some hotels and airlines have also joined anti-trafficking efforts by training employees on what to look for or posting the anti-trafficking hotline number where victims might see it.

Victims generally are anywhere from 13 or 14 years old to their 30s, can be men or women and can come from other parts of the world or within the United States. Anyone who suspects that they might know of a victim of trafficking can call the hotline at (888) 3737-888, Okroi said. For their own safety and the safety of the people who have been trafficked, no one should attempt to investigate on his or her own.


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