Contrary to popular belief, human trafficking a local problem

Published Mar 22, 2013 at 4:06 pm (Updated Mar 22, 2013 at 4:06 pm)

The room at Bella Sera Event Venue in Canonsburg went from being silent to shocked gasps during A Conversation About Human Trafficking, hosted by WOMEN of Southwestern PA. Jeanette Bussen, director of Justice & Peace Ministries – Sisters of St. Joseph and member of the Beaver County Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, along with FBI Special Agent Denise Holtz, spoke graphically on the subject.

“Seventy percent of the world’s poor are women, and that sets the stage for human trafficking,” Bussen said. “They are looking for a better life for their children.”

But while the temptations of financial security lure the women into prostitution, factory work, peddling rings and even restaurant work, the reality is horrific for the victims of human trafficking. Both children and adults are forced into providing free labor, commercial sex, being mail order brides or worse. “It’s a debasement of humanity and one of the greatest violations of human rights in the world,” Bussen said.

And, despite popular belief, human trafficking is not something that merely happens in other countries. In fact, it happens right here in western Pennsylvania. “At risk girls, runaways and drug addicts will do anything for their next meal, their next fix,” Holtz said. “We see girls like that right here in Pittsburgh.” Both Holtz and Bussen equated human trafficking to modern slavery – with a staggering decline in worth. “Slavery goes back forever,” Holtz said. “If you look at slavery in the 1860s versus slavery today, back then, slaves were an important commodity. Each one was worth $50,000 in today’s money. Today, each one is worth just $100.”

Holtz also said that human trafficking cases are very difficult to work, because the victims do not tell – some fear for their lives, as well as the lives of their families, while others are so manipulated and brainwashed that they don’t realize that they are victims. “These cases are very difficult to identify. For example, there was one 15-year-old girl – every time I sat town and talked to her, I got more of the truth. It’s very much like working a domestic violence case,” Holtz said.

Bussen explained that in Cambodia, United States citizens, mostly men, account for 40 percent of American sex tourism. In Costa Rica, that number doubles to 80 percent. And frighteningly, what the men are seeking out are children, both boys and girls, not grown women.

Bridgeville Police Chief Chad King, who was involved in the recent Spa 88 prostitution and human trafficking bust in Bridgeville, localized the concept of human trafficking, as did Peters Township Police Chief Harry Fruecht and Bethel Park School Police Officer Jim Modrak.

“When you see the crap we deal with every day, it really opens your eyes,” King said. “But if you think that these things don’t happen, you are buffered from reality.

King said that the women victims didn’t speak about what happened, because if they did, they were told that their families would be killed, no matter where they are. “They deny everything,” he said.

“You don’t have the slightest clue as to the world you are living in,” Fruecht said. “We live in a very sick world.”

Both chiefs stressed that they don’t want people to live in fear, but rather, to be aware. “You have to impress upon your kids to be aware, too,” Fruecht said. “We are the cleanup crew, coming in after the fact. It’s not a good place for you to be in with us.”

Holtz reiterated the importance of awareness. “If you see something that doesn’t look quite right, talk to local police. Think outside the box, it’s not always what you would think it would look like,” she said.

For more information on human trafficking, or if you suspect someone may be a victim, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-3737-888.

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