Laslo Boyd: Not Only In Nigeria

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Do you remember when the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls was sweeping through the Twitter sphere? Do you realize that it’s been three months since the extremist group Boko Haram kidnapped 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria? 

There was an international outcry, assurances by the Nigerian Government that it would act swiftly and decisively to get the girls back, and promises from other countries to provide assistance. The girls are still missing, Twitter has moved on to other subjects, and there are no remaining signs of a public outcry.

What happened in Nigeria — both the kidnapping and the lack of sustained attention to it — is, sadly, typical of the global tragedy of human trafficking. In its two most prominent forms, the sex trade and slave labor, there are estimates that millions of people around the world are entrapped and that the numbers are growing. Americans may want to take comfort that it is something that only happens in faraway, less developed nations, but the reality is far different.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by since human trafficking is a crime that occurs largely in the shadows of society. Moreover, even when it comes into view, it is often seen as something quite different, either prostitution or illegal immigration. However, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, over 250,000 youths in this country are at risk.

Those most likely to be enslaved – and that is still the most accurate description of the victims – are not only young but overwhelmingly female. Many are young runaways who end up, in the guise of being befriended by an adult, forced into lives of prostitution. They are, for the most part, very young teenagers in a strange city, far from anyone they know, and with little or no ability to escape from their circumstances.

One of the proposed remedies is to give police better training in how to recognize girls who are unwilling participants in the sex trade. The easy and most frequent response by law enforcement is to treat the girls as prostitutes, arrest them, and then put them back on the streets where they are immediately thrown back into the same cycle of abuse.

In addition, there are people brought into the United States from other countries, often in the mistaken impression that they are coming for real jobs, who are forced into sweatshops and other forms of unpaid labor. And some of those foreign workers end up forced into prostitution.

The numbers, again hard to verify, are certainly in the thousands in Maryland.  There are state, local and non-profit organizations that have started paying attention to this issue but they are neither terribly visible nor well-funded. I suspect that most of the people reading this column have never heard of any of these groups and may be totally unaware that human trafficking is even an issue in Maryland.

Last year, the Abell Foundation issue a report, “Sex Trafficking in Maryland.” The purpose was to draw attention to the issue and to encourage a public dialogue. The form of the report, less about statistics and more about concrete examples of young girls caught up in this horrible web, was an attempt to make the problem more real and less abstract.

Truck stops are, it turns out, a frequent place for sex trafficking. Lest you think in terms of stereotypes, however, hotels of all kinds are also complicit in looking the other way.

The State of Maryland since 2007 has also formalized its approach to human trafficking.  There is a Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force operating under the leadership of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The key state agency involved in the effort is the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. In April, the third annual Governor’s Conference was held with a wide array of workshops.

While that’s encouraging, it’s not so easy to find out much about the activities of these groups.  The web site for the conference still has the forms for signing up rather than a summary of the work of the conference. Similarly, when you go to the website for the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, the topic of human trafficking takes a couple of clicks to find.

Local government and a number of non-profits, many of them church-affiliated, are working on the issue at the grassroots level. Providing shelters for young girls and developing educational materials and emergency hotlines are among the efforts in which they are engaged.

Human trafficking is a scary and uncomfortable subject that is much easier to ignore than to look in the eye. For many, it seems inconceivable that it could be occurring in this country, much less in our community. The reflex response of blaming the victims has characterized much of our approach to this problem even when we have been willing to acknowledge that something wrong is going on.

A handful of members of the General Assembly have introduced bills, but nothing of great significance has passed. You certainly didn’t hear any of the gubernatorial candidates talking about human trafficking and you can search their campaign web sites in vein to find the subject mentioned.

As long as this awful topic stays off the public agenda, there is no chance that anything meaningful will be done to prevent the continued exploitation of its young victims.  At this point, we are treating human trafficking in the United States exactly the same way we are treating it in Nigeria.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.