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North Carolina ranks eighth among states in reported human trafficking, according to FBI data from World Relief Durham.
Cases collected by the N.C. Stop Human Trafficking coalition include forced prostitution in a massage parlor near Charlotte and the illegal transport of Mexican laborers to Durham.
In response, state government, non-government organizations and churches in the Triangle area have been building programs to address the issue.
For several years, N.C. Stop Human Trafficking has promoted awareness through trainings and fundraisers. Another statewide organization, the N.C. Coalition Against Human Trafficking, or NCCHAT, includes members from law enforcement, social services, government and non-government agencies. Collectively, they aim to increase awareness, serve victims and influence policy.
Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, an Orange County Democrat who sponsored the state’s first anti-human trafficking law in 2006 and penned another bill to support victims, says a variety of groups are working on the issue.
“Now we have to put it all to work,” she said. Locally, the Carolina Women’s Center has a database of resources on human trafficking. It and the affiliated UNC group, Carolina Against Slavery and Trafficking, promote awareness in Chapel Hill through movie screenings and campus speakers.
This year, World Relief expanded its anti-human trafficking program to Durham. Program director Andrew Castle’s top priority is educating the public on how to spot and report suspected trafficking.
Some signs a person may be a trafficking victim are the inability to leave a job or change one’s work schedule, the lack of identifying documents, limited or no knowledge of common landmarks and signs of physical or emotional abuse.
All of North Carolina’s anti-trafficking groups publicize the national anti-human trafficking hotline run by the Polaris project in Washington D.C. In 2011, North Carolinians made 326 calls to the hotline, up from 139 calls in 2009.
Claire Chu, a recent graduate from the UNC Gillings School of Public Health, worked for the Polaris Project when the hotline was barely an idea. Today, she said, trafficking is a hot topic, but she hopes not a fleeting one.
“The goal is to put it on people’s consciences,” she said, noting that public awareness is the best way to bring the topic to policy makers.
Polaris forwards tips to local law enforcement, which can then notify service providers so they can identify and help victims. Simply identifying victims can be a challenge.
“It’s very unclear sometimes,” Chu said, “because they don’t know who to trust.” At Polaris, Chu was part of the rapid response team and witnessed the chaos that victims encounter after a raid at a brothel or massage parlor. She admitted that tensions can be high as law enforcement search and question and traffickers deny knowledge of the activities going on in the back rooms of their businesses.
In cases where victims are prostituted, Chu said “law enforcement can view a victim as a perpetrator.” A woman may fear no one will believe her story or that she will be arrested for prostitution.
Last year, North Carolina became one of the first states to introduce mandatory training in human trafficking for law enforcement. NCCHAT members, including the Women’s Center, pushed for it and provided training resources.
Still, coordinating with police can be difficult.
“There’s fear of jail, deportation or retribution on their families by the traffickers,” Chu said. “They don’t know what consequences they’ll face.”
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act protects addresses these issues by providing victims special visas if they meet requirements.
Chu says measures are also needed to help U.S. citizens rescued out of trafficking. In a common scenario, a 12- to 15-year-old runaway may be moved from state to state by a man who pimps her out of hotel rooms. After escape or rescue, if she is over 18, she will find less protection or government-funded assistance than if she was a minor.
Organizations such as World Relief, The Women’s Center, and Polaris are striving to change the public perspective of such situations.
“It doesn’t have just one face to it,” Chu said. “If you see a woman on a street corner, you don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes.”