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Because you can’t buy a human being.

Jan. 24, 2019

A person's hands with a chain around their wrists

Imagine, for a moment, that you are having trouble providing for your family in your native country. Then imagine that some nice person comes along saying that they run a program just for people like you. They’ll help you pay your way to the U.S., they tell you, so that you can have a better life and send money back to your family. But when you get there, it’s not what you expected. Your passport and most of your possessions are taken away. You’re kept in a house with lots of other immigrants, where you’re forced to perform sexual acts on strangers for 12 hours a day. You arrived an immigrant full of hope, only to find yourself a slave.

None of us wants to think that sort of thing happens in the U.S., and certainly not in Minnesota -- but it does. In fact, just last month, five people in Minnesota were convicted of organized sex trafficking, among other charges. They were part of a sex-trafficking ring that preyed on Thai women, “shipping” them as if they were commodities rather than human beings. The women landed in cities across the U.S. (including Minneapolis) to be sold to sex buyers.

One of the most disturbing things about sex trafficking is that there’s a market for it. There are people right here in Minnesota who think they can “own” human beings the way farmers own cattle. And there are also people – again, right here in Minnesota – who are willing to pay to have sex with those same human beings. The victims of this particular sex trafficking ring had up to 10 “johns” per day. For just one person, that’s 70 people every week who felt justified in paying to have sex with them.

But there are also people out there who work day in and day out to stop this horrifying practice. Some of them come from the obvious places. For example, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) leads the Human Trafficking Investigators Task Force, which was established in 2017 as a statewide enforcement effort to target sex trafficking.

You’ll also find people working to stop human trafficking in places you might not expect. For example, there’s a national group called Convenience Stores Against Trafficking, because truck stops can be hotbeds of activity for sex trafficking. Earlier this month, they were joined by Minnesota-based convenience store chain Cenex Zip Trip, whose employees will now receive training on human trafficking prevention. In addition, their stores will feature information for those who want to report suspected trafficking. Even the trucking industry is getting in on it. In April, more than 90 members of Minnesota’s trucking community attended several days of training at the BCA on spotting and reporting suspected human trafficking.

It takes members of the public to spot and report suspected trafficking, too. Signs include high debt, poor and restrictive living conditions, poor mental health or abnormal behavior, poor physical health, and lack of control over their own finances, movement, possessions and documents. You can find more details about these signs on the Polaris Project’s website.

January is ending soon, and with it, National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. But we can remember year-round how important it is that we stop this heinous crime. After all, human trafficking has long-lasting consequences for anyone involved. Traffickers caught in Minnesota can spend up to 20 years in prison. Johns will have their mug shots seen by their friends, family, colleagues and community, and may be required to register as predatory offenders. And for the victims, PTSD can be just the tip of the iceberg.

That said, victims of sex trafficking can get help from the National Human Trafficking Hotline by calling 888-373-7888 or texting HELP to 233733. They need to know that there are people who will treat them like human beings, not merchandise to be bought and sold. They need to know there’s hope.