The recent sting operation uncovering child sex trafficking resulted in the arrest of 156 adults and recovered 106 children nationally. Those numbers included 18 adults in New Orleans, as well as a handful of children who had been sold locally for sex. This news was a harsh wake-up call to the New Orleans community of the slavery that takes place right under our noses. That’s right – slavery. It still exists today, but in a much more elusive form than what one might imagine. This article is dedicated to bringing awareness to the issue of modern day slavery, as well as what we each can do to recognize and counter it.
Professor Laura Murphy of Loyola University recalls an eye-opening article on human trafficking while writing her Ph.D. at Harvard on the topic of historical transatlantic slavery. The piece was in the New York Times and it claimed that the conditions faced by individuals trafficked today were comparable to the experience of those who had crossed the Atlantic on slave ships in the 1600 and 1700s. Dr. Murphy found this supposition ridiculous – how could anything today resemble the horrors of a slave ship? Through further research, she began to realize the extent to which slavery is still taking place today and the inhumane conditions forced upon its victims. This realization changed her life – “I was stopped in my tracks," she admitted. "What was I doing studying the past when slavery is happening in the present?”
Mr. Joe Cannon, the State Coordinator of CUE (Community United Effort for Missing Persons) has no illusions about the prevalence of modern day slavery. While speaking with Mr. Cannon at his home, which is located in the most wholesome of neighborhoods, he remarks “you don’t have to go very far to find it, even here.”On any given Sunday, you are likely to find Mr. Cannon at his home on the phone with a volunteer in another state, working to coordinated national efforts to end slavery and save those being trafficked. Both Mr. Cannon and Dr. Murphy have dedicated themselves to countering the horrors of modern day slavery.
Although sex trafficking most often catches the media's attention, especially when children are involved, there are other forms of modern slavery that are more common. In fact, Dr. Murphy reported that for every one person being used as a sex slave, there are eight who are being exploited for other purposes, such as hard labor. This obsession of the media is clear due to the fact that, ultimately, sex sells. "Can anyone imagine Hollywood making a movie about a man forced to pick tomatoes?" questioned Dr. Murphy.
But what is modern slavery, and is it the same thing as what we read about in history books? According to Kevin Bales, author of the book "Disposable People," the dimensions of "ownership" appear to be more complicated today than in the past. The defining aspect, however, remains the inability to escape.
The obvious solution seems to simply rescue those who are held captive. However, reality proves more daunting. Many children and women who are "rescued" only end up fleeing back to their captors, who often pose as providers or protectors. "Rescue is never enough," explained Dr. Murphy, which is why she and Mr. Cannon have made it their purpose to make escape possible.To this end the Modern Slavery Research Project was created, which is part of the New Orleans Human Trafficking Working Group headed by Dr. Murphy.
In order to make escape possible, this organization envisions the establishment of a "victim's resource kit" which can give critical information to those being trafficked. Both Mr. Cannon and Dr. Murphy stress that those being trafficked need to realize that they are victims, not criminals. Understanding their rights and knowing that there are people willing to help them without judgment can make a major difference. However, this is often difficult to relay, as there is a lack of facilities for housing and caring for such victims. Usually, after being “rescued”, they are placed in prisons. This strategy is not sending the right message to those who need help.
Efforts to counter trafficking locally during the Superbowl were astounding, but after the fans left town, many local volunteers lost interest. The truth is that trafficking is a constant problem in this city. According to Mr. Cannon, it has gotten considerably worse since an increase in cartel activity began about two years ago. Further, the cases of missing children have also increased in this same time frame.
Currently, Mr. Cannon explained, it only takes an average of 48 hours for a child who is out on the streets to be contacted by a trafficker. And, it only makes sense that children would be targeted heavily by the cartel. Compared to drugs, which are bought and sold once, a person can be sold for profit multiple times a day. Mr. Cannon explained that "the return on investment is staggering." If the community fails to take serious action to counter this nightmare, it will only continue to get worse.
When asked how one makes a living combatting the horrors of modern day slavery, Dr. Murphy admitted that there are days that it makes her nauseated. Nevertheless, the tangible effects that her work has on real people's lives give her the feeling that she could work all the time. Key to her motivation is keeping the survivors in mind. With respect to her project to develop a rescue kit, talking to survivors and asking what they wish they would have had or known to make their escape easier is key.
Mr. Cannon also works tirelessly to combat the atrocious crimes of slavery. At least once a month, he takes a trip to dangerous neighborhoods where he and his team visit hotels and foster trust with those who are able to spot trafficked individuals. Through these visits, his team aims to offer themselves as a point of contact for those who are ready to seek help. Further, through the group S.O.A.P. (Save Our Adolescence from Prostitution), Mr. Cannon compiles and distributes a list of missing children detailing their home town, missing date, current age as well as a photograph. As I flip through the multiple-page pamphlet that Mr. Cannon gave me, it is absolutely clear how grave the circumstances are and how important his work is.
But countering the enslavement of over 21 million people globally seems like a task too large for most. This thinking has to change. Both Dr. Murphy and Mr. Cannon are examples of how one can take their unique skill set and apply it to this problem. Dr. Murphy relays this by explaining that she started her activism as an English major who offered her exceptional writing skills to the cause. Soon, her involvement grew and eventually became the driving force of her life. Alongside her research, teaching and community activism, she still does little things on the side to help out survivors, like creating web platforms from which survivors can manage their own speaking careers. "It's nothing, but it makes a huge difference," remarked Dr. Murphy.