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Modern-day slavery in the shadows, and plain sight in North Carolina
Human trafficking grows across Tar Heel State
 
Published Wednesday, August 1, 2018 8:40 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

PHOTO | SERHAT BEYAZKAYA
Human trafficking is a growing concern in North Carolina, which is eighth in the nation with 895 calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2017.

Human trafficking is growing in North Carolina.


Activists and trafficking opponents will meet in New Bern Aug. 7-8 to address how best to battle the crime at a conference sponsored by Project No Rest, an initiative to raise awareness across the state. Human trafficking is defined as the recruiting, harboring, transportation or providing a person’s labor through force, fraud or coercion.


North Carolina is eighth in the nation in terms of sex trafficking calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline with 895 victims and survivors identified in 2017. Urban areas like Charlotte with growing populations and affluence are magnets for human trafficking as laborers or the sex trade. Young people – especially minors who lack family structure or are in foster care – are especially vulnerable.


“It’s a big city,” said Dean Duncan, a Project No Rest organizer and professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work. “…There are a lot of things going on in the Charlotte area that could draw in individuals who would be interested in trafficking humans.”


Data on human trafficking is difficult to define, but growing in scope. In five years, the number of calls to the national hotline from North Carolina nearly doubled from 451 victims and survivors in 2012. The increase is due in part to rising public awareness, according to Special Deputy Attorney General Jasmine McGhee, director of the N.C. Department of Justice’s Public Protection Section.


“Traditionally, human trafficking has been underreported because people don’t recognize the signs and don’t know how to get help for themselves or others,” McGhee said, “so, when more people are aware and are taking steps to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline or notify local law enforcement when they suspect trafficking, that’s encouraging. It means the anti-trafficking efforts in our state are working.”


In 2016, the FBI, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Department launched Operation Cross Country, a task force dedicated specifically to investigate human trafficking in Charlotte. Since 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuted 10 human trafficking cases – all sex trafficking of minors – in the Western District of North Carolina, which includes Charlotte. Each defendant is serving time with sentences ranging from 10 years to life in prison.


“The number of human trafficking cases is growing, but it is unclear if this is because of greater awareness of the problem or if the problem itself is growing,” said Shelley Lynch, the FBI Charlotte Division’s public information officer, who cautions the Uniform Crime Report cites the national hotline, which doesn’t always confirm allegations. Although trafficking is difficult to quantify statistically, its victims are in demand, especially in the sex trade.


“People are buying youth,” Duncan said. “Nobody wants to have sex with a 50-year-old. The idea behind sex trafficking is you’re pursuing youth.”


Law enforcement and community involvement are key to confronting human trafficking through training and awareness. In January, NCDOJ sponsored training on a new technology called Spotlight, which helps police navigate the online human trafficking market, especially in child sex investigations.  


“It’s important for all of us to step up and be on the lookout for situations that may indicate someone is being trafficked,” McGhee said. “Last year, of the 854 calls made from our state to the national hotline, 221 were from community members. People might see something that seems out of place, and if they report it, trained law enforcement and service providers can investigate. That’s how we can respond and support victims who need our help.”


Federal officials work with state and local law enforcement to help exploited victims break away from traffickers for a fresh start.


“We take a very victim-centric approach,” Lynch said, noting the FBI helps victims regardless of age with necessities such as counseling services, food, clothing and shelter. “We are looking to arrest the people who are doing the trafficking. For us, it’s the person who’s forcing people to do this against their will” who is targeted for prosecution.

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