Human trafficking: myths busted

Jenna Novak from the Polaris Project presents a lecture on human trafficking at the U on March 3. Photo by Chris Samuels.
Jenna Novak from the Polaris Project presents a lecture on human trafficking at the U on March 3. Photo by Chris Samuels.
Jenna Novak wants to deconstruct myths about human trafficking.
Novak is a program specialist and supervisor for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center of the Polaris Project, a national organization devoted to ending human trafficking. She spoke in the College of Social Work’s four-part training on human trafficking issues on Tuesday night. Her session was titled “Inside the Mind of a Victim” and had roughly 75 people in attendance.
Her training focused on myths as well as ways to identify and help victims of human trafficking. She stressed the prevalence of the problem both nationwide and within the state of Utah.
Novak said the biggest misconception regarding human trafficking comes from the word “traffic” itself. She said victims do not even have to cross city lines to be considered trafficking victims, let alone state or national borders.
“Trafficking is about the exploitation of a person, not the movement of one,” Novak said.
Victims may be American or international, male or female, minors or adults. Traffickers are of every race, gender and socioeconomic class. But for Novak, the biggest myth of all is that all trafficking is sex trafficking. She said only 22 percent of the annual 20.9 million victims will be forced into commercial sex. Sixty-eight percent will be victims of labor trafficking. The remaining 10 percent of victims are state-imposed laborers, such as rebel armed forces or child soldiers.
Novak said nearly all victims of trafficking are vulnerable individuals. Homeless youth, economically disadvantaged citizens, foreign nationals and undocumented workers are all at high risk for being conscripted into trafficking, as these populations are all easily exploited through blackmail, debt bondage, deportation threats or provision of basic resources.
She also said there is often an unusual connection between victims and their traffickers. Many come to “love” their captors for providing them with a comparatively stable situation and the opportunity to make money, or simply for showing them attention. Some victims do not identify themselves as such, because of what Novak called “normalization of trafficking as a means of survival.”
Because of the lack of self-identification, Novak said it is especially important that outsiders learn to identify victims. She said new clothes and phones, a new and older love interest or a lack of control over personal affairs suggesting the presence of a “manager” are all signs.
If students suspect a person may be a victim of trafficking, Novak encourages them to start asking questions. She said inquiries such as “who are you working for?” and “What are they paying you?” and “When was the last time you ate?” can go a long way in confirming suspicions. She said students should then give the suspected victim the phone number for the Polaris Project’s national hotline, which they can call, text or email.
Russell Mark Robertson, an alumnus of the College of the Social Work who now works for Child and Family Services, said he has watched many documentaries on human trafficking, but they all focus on the overall system rather than individual victims. He hopes Tuesday night’s lecture on understanding the mindset of victims will help him deal with the cases of sexual abuse he encounters in his job.
“Many times, it’s the same mindset,” Robertson said. “It’s important to understand that.”
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