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Team Hill gathers for human trafficking awareness

Allison Smith, education and outreach specialist for the Trafficking in Persons Program with the Refugee and Immigrant Center in Salt Lake City, stands in front of a screen depicting human trafficking hot spots across the state of Utah. Audience members look on in the foreground.

Allison Smith, education and outreach specialist for the Trafficking in Persons Program with the Refugee and Immigrant Center in Salt Lake City, speaks during a Combating Trafficking in Persons awareness event at the Chapel Fellowship Hall at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Jan. 23, 2019. The event was hosted by the Hill Air Force Base Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.(U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

Allison Smith, education and outreach specialist for the Trafficking in Persons Program with the Refugee and Immigrant Center in Salt Lake City, speaks to audience members. Audience members look on in the foreground.

Allison Smith, education and outreach specialist for the Trafficking in Persons Program with the Refugee and Immigrant Center in Salt Lake City, speaks during a Combating Trafficking in Persons awareness event at the Chapel Fellowship Hall at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Jan 23, 2019. The event was hosted by the Hill Air Force Base Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- Allison Smith, education and outreach specialist for the Trafficking in Persons Program with the Refugee and Immigrant Center in Salt Lake City, recently spoke to more than 60 base personnel and community partners who gathered to learn about human trafficking.

The Hill Air Force Base Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office hosted the awareness event Jan. 23 at the Chapel Fellowship Hall. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

Human trafficking happens when a trafficker recruits or takes some kind of action against someone, then employs the means of force, fraud or coercion against them for purpose of commercial sex acts, labor or other services.

Smith said 73% of people believe human trafficking is widespread in the U.S., but only 20% believe it happens in their community.

“The reality is trafficking is happening in the United States and in Utah,” Smith said.

The illicit human trafficking industry is second only to the illicit drug industry in the United States. However, Smith said human trafficking is rapidly approaching the number one spot.

According to data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 23,078 trafficking survivors were identified across the country in 2018. The demographics:

• 72% sex trafficking (40% children, 81% female, 45% U.S. citizens)
• 12% labor trafficking (16% children, 57% female, 68% foreign nationals or legalized immigrants from 38 different countries)
• 6% sex and labor trafficking

“The research shows 14-17 is the average age of those who are trafficked,” Smith said.

Poverty is the number one risk factor for trafficking, but marginalized people are frequently targeted including the homeless, runaways, the LGBTQ+ community, and refugees and immigrants.

Other high risk groups include people suffering from substance abuse, sexual abuse or assault, have a history of juvenile justice or foster care, or those with mental health problems.

Traffickers prey on vulnerabilities and use a number of means to control their victims. They might make false promises, hold back treatment for illnesses or injuries, force a juvenile to exchange sex for basic needs, work someone excessive hours for little or no pay, or restrict access to a person’s legal or travel documents, just to name a few.

Smith said compounding the problem is human trafficking victims often don’t see themselves as victims.

“Why most individuals stay is partly because of what got them into the life, the coercive piece,” she said. “Most people say, ‘I got myself into this, I can get myself out.’”

In addition, human trafficking victims often experience a powerful condition called trauma bond.

Smith said its neurobiological coping mechanism that enables a person to cope with the trauma they have experienced. The condition is similar to the Stockholm Syndrome, where feelings of trust or affection are felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim toward a captor.

Trafficking is prevalent on the internet, in group homes, homeless shelters, malls, parks, libraries, schools and social media. Smith said the main source of recruitment today is the game chat function of video games.

People can help by getting to know the classmates and friends of their children, and what apps they are using. They can also educate themselves online, blogs, social media, and attending awareness events about human trafficking.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free hotline, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-888-373-7888. Support is provided in more than 200 languages. You can also email help@humantraffickinghotline.org. If you are in immediate danger, call 911.