What is human trafficking? According to the US Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign program dedicated to combating this problem, human trafficking is “a modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain.” Within this overarching term, there are different types, including sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and, though not as common in the U.S., organ trafficking. This issue is extremely hard to control due to the very large numbers of victims, the intense network of traffickers, and the invisibility of this modern slavery that we may unknowingly be interacting with every day.

On November 12, I went to the Maine Governor’s Summit on Human Trafficking in Lincolnville, Maine, sponsored by the Not Here Justice in Action Network. Participants included Governor Paul LePage, representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice, members of the Maine Task Force, and a large number of police chiefs, deputies, and officers, all committed to fighting this huge issue. To be honest, I have never felt more like a student than I did listening to these experts discuss the impact of human trafficking on individuals and communities in Maine and across the U.S. One female officer spoke of multiple cases involving direct contact with victims, making me well aware that these people knew exactly the extent to which this issue penetrated everyday life for locals.

I was reminded throughout the day that the research my group conducted for Professor Rocque’s Soc211: Crime, Justice, and Society course, is extremely valuable for bringing this topic into academia. The six of us contacted three universities each to find out the extent to which human trafficking is covered in the curriculum. This project was initiated in cooperation with Auburn Police Chief Phil Crowell and Not Here representative Jennifer Morin, who felt it would be relevant to focus on college students’ awareness and education on human trafficking.

As one of two Bates representatives at this conference, I listened, questioned, and absorbed a vast amount of statistics, programs, and initiatives that the federal government and Maine representatives presented. In the morning, a speaker from the Salvation Army of Ohio laid out the structure that they have used in order to promote a coordinated community response for victims of human trafficking, a structure that the Salvation Army of Maine, as well as other NGOs, could use as a basis for establishing their own programs. Next, a woman from the Polaris Project highlighted misconceptions regarding labor trafficking in the U.S.  According to Polaris, the sectors where labor trafficking most often occurs are (from greatest to least): domestic work, traveling sales crews (door-to-door sales), and restaurant/food services. The speaker pointed out that in many cases, labor trafficking victims are extremely susceptible to sex trafficking, due to their isolation and vulnerability.

After a brief lunch, I went to two education/prevention sessions and finished the day with an advocacy-prevention talk. A former prosecutor and Senior Training Advisor from the Homeland Security Blue Campaign discussed the increasing difficulty of identifying and tracking traffickers due to the new communication technologies and internet anonymity that traffickers exploit. The most disturbing topic from that talk addressed the particular vulnerabilities to human trafficking faced by foster children, who lack a constant home or guardian in their lives. Traffickers find it very easy to become the most consistent point of contact a foster child may have, thereby establishing a strong link of trust with these children. After gaining their trust, these traffickers will then threaten the children mentally or physically, forcing them into sexual acts, and then, using the children’s school connections, will expand their trafficking network into the community. This horrifying scenario is not uncommon, and the speaker emphasized the urgency of reaching and helping to these children before the traffickers do so. The representative from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) addressed the many ways in which social workers and families could report missing children, and described the resources that the Center has to find these young people.

The conference was two days long.  I only went for the first full day, but since returning to Bates, the issue of human trafficking has been constantly on my mind. The awareness that this conference raised among all of us who attended is a step in the right direction. Though it may seem hard to imagine how to contain and deal with this problem, the information provided by these officials and representatives brought home to all of us the importance of combating human trafficking. Now the ball is in our court; it’s time for us, as students, faculty, staff, and administrators, to continue to raise awareness and to constantly remind ourselves that human trafficking is that invisible modern-day slavery that is right in front of our eyes.