What is human trafficking and how does it impact our communities?

Human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking, isn’t always what people might think. Because of that, it’s a crime that is likely underreported and more prevalent than anyone knows.

“Human trafficking has a lot of definitions. It’s not only a violent crime, it’s basically just taking advantage of someone in some way who has some form of vulnerability, whether that’s through forced labor, sex trafficking…” Madison Higley, vice president of her school’s Catch the Eye Club, a group focused on bringing awareness to human trafficking both locally and globally, said.

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While the term might be ambiguous, the Federal Bureau of Investigation defines sex trafficking as, “When individuals are compelled by force, fraud, or coercion to engage in commercial sex acts. Sex trafficking of a minor occurs when the victim is under the age of 18. For cases involving minors, it is not necessary to prove force, fraud, or coercion.”

Although the crimes can be violent abductions where teenage girls are kidnapped and kept on drugs and sold into sexual servitude — usually they’re much more innocuous — and sometimes victims don’t even know they’re victims.

“To be very clear, traffickers are smart, traffickers, they prey on victims that utilize manipulation. Oftentimes, traffickers will brainwash their victims, they will make the victims think that this way of life is normal. Oftentimes, they’ll also make the victims think that if you report this, either, no one will believe you, or your basic necessities won’t be met,” US Attorney Dena King said.

Victims can come from all walks of life, but there are some groups more at risk than others.

“Researchers are finding that running away significantly increases young people’s risk of commercial sexual exploitation as well as labor trafficking,” according to Family and Youth Services Bureau.

The reasoning for the higher risk comes down to several factors for these runaways.

“Homeless youth are vulnerable to both sex and labor trafficking because they tend to experience a higher rate of the primary risk factors to trafficking: poverty, unemployment, a history of sexual abuse, and a history of mental health issues,” according to the FYSB.

While the reach of the crimes are not fully known, the FYSB conducted research which surveyed more than 600 youth runaways — and the number of those young people who are reportedly victims of some form of trafficking is staggering.

“The study found that 19% of the 641 youth were identified as victims of some sort of human trafficking. More than 14% had been trafficked for sex while 8% had been trafficked for other forced labor. Three percent were trafficked for both sex and labor,” according to the survey.

Numbers from the Charlotte Metro Human Trafficking Task Force show in 2023, 101 minors were identified as suspected or confirmed victims of human trafficking.

The FBI and other federal agencies do track the number of human trafficking incidents through a program called NIBRS, and the latest data from 2022 shows how big of an issue these crimes are both nationally and state wide.

“In 2022, there were 1,862 human trafficking, commercial sex acts incidents, and 2,136 offenses reported in the United States by 13,293 law enforcement agencies that submitted National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) data, and covers 75% of the total population,” according to the FBI.

In North Carolina, the numbers are relatively smaller, but the Charlotte Metro Human Trafficking Task Force says there’s been a 77% increase in minor victims from 2022 to 2023.

“In 2022, there were 24 human trafficking, commercial sex acts incidents, and 39 offenses reported in North Carolina by 407 law enforcement agencies that submitted National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) data, and covers 95% of the total population,” according to FBI data.

The data also reveals the ages of all of the victims, the majority of which fall in the age groups from 20-39.

>> Learn how detectives used a victim-centered approach in their sex trafficking sting in Rowan County by clicking here.

Michael Praats

Michael Praats, wsoctv.com

Michael is an investigative producer for Channel 9.