Human Trafficking in the Lowcountry

A trafficker can potentially make $150,000-$200,000 per victim each year. The average or trafficker or  pimp has four to six girls. (U.S. Department of Justice, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children).

A trafficker can potentially make $150,000-$200,000 per victim each year. The average or trafficker or pimp has four to six girls. (U.S. Department of Justice, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children).

What comes to mind when you hear the word “slavery?” If it’s an image of a dark skinned man plowing a field in the antebellum South, then you’re not alone. However, modern slavery takes a different form. Unbeknownst to many, slavery is one of largest international crime industries in the world, generating 32 billion dollars a year. More people today than ever before are enslaved.

Human trafficking is a form of modern day slavery defined under U.S. federal law as minors involved in sex trade, adults who are coerced or deceived into commercial sex acts and anyone forced into labor work. Sex and labor trafficking are the most common forms.

The crime’s international scale brings to mind hallmark countries like Thailand, but it happens right here in the United States – even in Charleston.

“It is very hard to convince people that human trafficking goes on in the Charleston area,” said Sister Mary Thomas Neal, a local nun who has served as liaison to the United Nations. “I think it’s because they don’t want to believe it. However, in conscience, every one of us should be aware that human trafficking is happening.”

South Carolina Sheds Dirty Dozen Reputation

When South Carolina officials became aware of trafficking in the Palmetto State, they began to push corrective legislation. CaraLee Murphy, East Coast Director of the sex- trafficking prevention and victim restoration nonprofit A21 Campaign, said, “In December of 2012, South Carolina passed H. 3757 and it’s a phenomenal law.”

Prior to H. 3757, South Carolina was in the Polaris Project, a leading organization that combats human trafficking and modern-day slavery, as well as the Dirty Dozen, which names the twelve states with the weakest trafficking laws. “We had a terrible law,” Murphy said. “There wasn’t a lot of awareness. So when [H. 3757] passed, Polaris Project named us the most improved state within that year.” The new trafficking law states that those found guilty of trafficking persons will have their assets liquidated and restitution must be paid to the victim. In addition, the law created the Human Trafficking Task Force, whose main goal is to combat trafficking in South Carolina by raising awareness, educating law enforcement and creating goals to fix any known problems.

While South Carolina has improved legally, there are still no Safe Harbor Laws, which offer legal protection and care services for minors. Often minors are left with records and memories that haunt them.

“I have certainly seen how it has been harder for our victim Hannah* to get a job and move forward with her life because she has this record… Even if she were to find a job that didn’t require a background search or didn’t ask questions about previous legal entanglements, a quick Google search would bring up her past. She is trying to move forward and her past is holding her down,” Allison Wagner, Legal Coordinator for A21 Campaign said.

Although enslavement of minors is an especially poignant issue, there is currently not any corrective legislation being pushed forward. The Palmetto State may have lost the Dirty Dozen title, but there is still some dirt on our hands.

How Trafficking Happens

Trafficking victims and the methods that lure people into trafficking vary. According to Murphy, most local cases involved women sex trafficking victims from a variety of household and backgrounds. “Some have come from really great families and they got pulled into trafficking,” she said. “Some come from broken homes, and they were runaways. We’ve really been able to deal with just lots of different girls, but they’ve all been phenomenal.”

Traffickers and pimps use a variety of methods to bring girls into trafficking, but one pattern stands out as the most common. “Men have come into their lives and really played up the relationship side of it,” Murphy said. “They’ve acted like a boyfriend, husband, lover or whatever that girlfriend needs for that peace then got her in trafficking.” Murphy calls this the “wooing” or the “lover boy” method.

“The problem with the wooing and the lover boy is that then there’s this emotional aspect as well cause it really starts off as a relationship. They don’t really identify themselves as victims. They sometimes even go as far to defend him and his actions,” Murphy said.

But as Murphy points out, each case is different. “You can never check the boxes and have everything be the same,” Murphy said. While women and girls are the primary victims, men are also trafficked. When asked if she has dealt with a case where a man was trafficked, Murphy said, “Not here but in our other offices. We have had a couple of labor trafficking cases go through and those involve men and women. And we’ve had one where the man was involved in sex trafficking. It’s not that it doesn’t happen [to men]. If it happens to the male population it typically happens to boys… so minors. It’s just much less known what happens with girls because girls are the majority of sex trafficking victims.”

Traffickers can even be family. “I actually met a girl who was a trafficking survivor and her father got into

debt by gambling and he would take her to sell her to pay off his debt. And that is trafficking,” Murphy said.

It is important to remember that people who are being trafficked are not prostitutes. A trafficked person is being forced, while prostitutes can be willing. Murphy, however, is quick to point out that street prostitution is where A21 has found potential trafficked victims.

Helping Hands

When Murphy and other A21 team members took one of their girls to the Tease Blow Dry Bar on King Street, they learned just how supportive the community can be. “Our girl was about to face her trafficker in court, and we took her to Tease to make her feel good about herself and they donated the entire session to us,” Murphy said.

When asked about how others can help Murphy said, “The first thing that I always say is to get the information. You have to know what you’re talking about. So read some statistics. I always encourage people to follow anti-human trafficking online. Polaris Project is great, IJM which is International Justice Mission. And they’re constantly releasing statistics and stories. And they release the findings of those studies, and then that’s how you find out about human trafficking.”

“And then when you know about it, tell people about it. There are so many creative ways to share what’s going on in the world today in regards to human trafficking. You can always donate or give like the girl at Tease to donate that whole session to us was phenomenal. It meant the world to our girl. Every little bit helps. We can’t do everything, but we can all do something. The power of continued giving [is great] even if it’s just five, ten dollars a month. Be creative; use your talents and passion to support trafficked victims. They definitely need it. And then if you always want to get more involved you can always intern.”

Even doing something small can still be doing something great.

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