Human Trafficking: Flourishing in the Shadows, Demanding Our Attention

[1] As part of its exhibit to raise awareness about human trafficking at the 2009 Youth Gathering in New Orleans, the ELCA's program unit for Church and Society rented a U-Haul Van and opened its back doors. Youth groups were invited to jump in and read the stories of people affected such as Miya, a 19 year-old girl from Arizona who was trafficked after being recruited to "model" while she as working at the mall selling sunglasses:


They took my picture with a cheap, disposable camera, and they said they'd use high quality cameras and sets in California. When we arrived a few days later, the man showed me my picture on a website for an escort service. I was forced to work as a prostitute. I didn't know where I was, so I didn't try to run away. I was moved constantly. I finally escaped one night. The police caught the man who trafficked me, but he's only been charged with pimping and pandering the girl with him — not for what he did to me. Before they found me, the couple I met in the mall approached 30 other girls, but I was the only one who agreed to go.1

[2] While jumping in the shiny van with their youth group seemed somehow exotic in the vast convention center where 37,000 people gathered, getting into a car is how many people are initiated into human trafficking, now the fastest growing crime worldwide, the second most lucrative behind drugs, drawing more income than guns. The State Department estimates that some 14,500 to 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the US annually from at least 35 countries. That's in addition to the tens of thousands of people trafficked and enslaved within the country every year.

Human Trafficking: Flourishing in the Shadows, Demanding Our Attention by Emily Davila

[3] While slavery is one of the oldest crimes in the world, human trafficking is thriving today with help from quick and cheap transportation and online tools that serve as recruiting grounds or advertise prostitution. The recent economic crisis has only made things worse; as opportunities for employment decrease and desperation for livelihoods rise, the frontlines of human trafficking expand.

What Is Human Trafficking?
[4] As a crime that succeeds through secrecy, it is difficult to estimate numbers of people trafficked. Estimates of the number of adults and children entrapped by trafficking number from 12.3 to 27 million worldwide. Trafficking of persons is defined as transporting people across borders for exploitation through fraud, force or coercion for labor, the sale of body parts or prostitution. It can also include forced begging, domestic servitude, marriage, illicit adoption and even armed conflict.

[5] The defining element of trafficking is coercion for financial gain. The crime doesn't necessarily require moving someone across a border — there are many stories of people being sold in their own neighborhoods, who keep silent out of fear of threats to themselves or to their families. Many victims experience rape, confinement and torture and they are often faced with daily mental and physical abuse. Survivors speak about their dignity eroding over time: "the most damaging [thing] is not to be a human being anymore, only a thing, a piece of merchandise," one survivor told Helen Hayes, Ph.D., a member of the Good Shepherd Sisters who is researching a book on trafficking.

[6] Trafficking in persons is a crime under federal and international law and estimated to have a market value of $32 billion, according to the UN. Unlike drugs or weapons, a person can be bought and sold multiple times, making for high profits. While awareness of the crime is growing and laws are changing, few criminals are prosecuted. According to the State Department, trafficking convictions making up less than 10% of convictions globally.

Girls for Sale
[7] As a crime that preys on social and economic vulnerability, it comes as no surprise that women and children make up the majority of persons trafficked. The United Nations (U.N.) estimates that 80% of victims of international trafficking are women forced into some form of prostitution. With the spread of HIV, many sexually exploited women will die from AIDS.

[8] Globally, nearly half of those trafficked are minors. The United States is no exception: the Department of Justice estimates that between 100,000 and 3 million American kids under age 18 are involved in prostitution, many of whom are trafficked or at-risk for further exploitation. The average age of a child when he or she is first sexually exploited is 11, and the average age of entry into prosecution in the United States is 12-13 years old.2

[9] While there is growing attention to the crime in the United States, trafficked women and girls remain hidden in plain sight, exploited in hotel rooms, bars, massage parlors and brothels set up in residential houses or trailers. Many trafficking victims are forced to work in nail salons, in strip clubs or as escorts or hostesses. These establishments are also the top spots for recruitment for domestic sex traffickers or pimps, who particularly target homeless and vulnerable youth.3

[10] Children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking in the aftermath of disasters, and many became victims after the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. The executive director of UNICEF, Ann Veneman, expressed her concern about the potential trafficking of children in Haiti after the recent earthquake, "In these emergency circumstances children can be plucked off the street and taken away," she told CNN.

Hurdles to Justice
[11] In the last 10 years, legal mechanisms to prosecute traffickers have grown. In 2000, U.N. member states created the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. The protocol outlined a common definition for human trafficking and required all signatories to create anti-trafficking laws. Today, more than half the countries in the world have enacted laws criminalizing trafficking, and 26 countries created new laws in the last year, according to the United States State Department which tracks global trafficking every year in its Trafficking in Persons Report.

[12] Still, trafficking is a crime that remains largely unpunished. Law enforcement and community service like hospitals, schools, shelters, day cares and social workers need training to identify signs of trafficking and to learn how to treat victims, who in many places are treated like criminals.

[13] "A woman will come into the police station and say I was tricked to come here, I thought I would get a well-paid job as a waitress and improve the life of my family, but when I got here I got gang raped I was made to have sex with 20 people every day." said Steve Wilkinson, head of the Met's Human Trafficking Team in the United Kingdom, in a video produced by U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime. "And then the officer says, 'oh I see you have a false passport' and focuses on the passport! It's incredible, but its happening in all countries in the world and the traffickers are laughing at us because we are playing into their hands. We have to focus on traffickers and to do that we have to look after the rights of the victims."

[14] In the United States, the annual percentage of trafficking and slavery cases solved is less than 1%, according to the Department of Justice. Each state has different trafficking laws, and some are more effective than others. New York, for instance, was heralded for the trafficking legislation it passed in 2007. But since then, only 18 arrests and one conviction have been made, according to the New York Times.4

[15] The key legislation in the United States is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, created in 2000 in order to recognize victims of domestic sex trafficking as legitimate crime victims in need of social services as well as enhances criminal penalties. It also mandates a Cabinet-level federal interagency task force on human trafficking and establishes a federal program to provide services to trafficking victims.

Cultural Response
[16] While stopping human trafficking will require adequately trained law enforcement and responsive social services, there are many innovative awareness-raising and advocacy efforts led by nonprofits, business, faith communities, musicians and celebrities.

[17] In 2008 the rock-documentary Call+Response was released, featuring musicians such as Moby, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Talib Kwali, as well as celebrities such as Cornel West and Ashley Judd. In Europe, MTV launched MTVEXIT a collection of music videos and public service announcements by artists like The Killers and Radiohead.

[18] Actress Emma Thompson recently launched a traveling art installation depicting the world of human sex trafficking. The exhibit of scenes of trafficking constructed in cargo boxes made its way to New York's Washington Square Park.

[19] Musicians such as Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier from Sudan, have also made songs about trafficking and their own lives.

[20] The business sector is also responding to the issue, due in part to consumer advocacy. Nearly 1000 companies in 37 countries have signed on to the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism. "The Code" has been signed by major hotel chains like Radisson, Regent and Country Inn and Suites. Currently advocates are asking Choice Hotels to also sign on.

[21] By the signing "The Code" companies commit to establish a policy against commercial exploitation of children, train personnel in countries of origin and destination, to provide information about their efforts and report annually.

People of Faith Step Forward
[22] Building on their history as abolitionists, religious communities are also working together to confront human trafficking. Their actions range from starting safe houses and sensitizing police, to education and advocacy at a national level.

[23] Faith communities tend to focus on the dignity of the trafficking survivor, yet at the same time they do not see the crime as isolated, but rather a sign of a tear in the fabric of society where human dignity comes too cheap.

[24] "What is at stake in the issue of human trafficking in a very stark way is our core Christian belief that every human person is of infinite worth and dignity, not a commodity to be bought and sold for profits" said Hayes, who is writing her book in order to make it more "difficult for governments and individuals to avoid facing this harrowing, global human rights violation."

[25] Religious groups are also not shy about naming the moral and ethical aspects of the scourge.

[26] "Traffickers and those who buy women and children for sexual pleasure require words of judgment," said Rev. Carrie Pemberton, an Anglican Priest and founding director of Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking across Europe (CHASTE). But Pemberton also believes that faith has role in healing, as a balm to the shame that trafficking survivors struggle to erase. "Those sold need the words of liberation, but most of all the world needs a new culture of respect, mutuality and equality, of which the church is called to be a harbinger," wrote Pemberton in an article for the World Council of Churches.

[27] The Justice for Women program of the ELCA sees human trafficking as part of the societal, systemic landscape of patriarchy and sexism. The program has assembled resources and curriculum for youth inspired by Judges 19, asking people to learn the facts about trafficking for themselves and to "Consider it, take counsel and speak out."

[28] The Women of the ELCA has provided resources on human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, having expressed concern over commercial sexual exploitation for a number of years.

[29] The ELCA recently encouraged people to observe the National Day of Human Trafficking on January 11. At the close of 2009, the Lutheran World Federation discussed human trafficking at the meeting of their governing body, agreeing on action steps for the global communion.5

[30] There is no doubt that religious communities are firm in their resolve to end human trafficking.

[31] "Part of our mandate is to advocate for justice for women in church and society and the way we do that is grounded in Lutheran theology," said Mikka McCracken, intern for ELCA Justice for Women program and co-author of their trafficking resources.

[32] "Christ's life, death, and resurrection frees us from bondage to sin to serve our neighbors. Violence against women, human trafficking, these are the places where we are theologically called to participate," said McCracken.

Report a Tip
If you are a victim of human trafficking and need immediate help or if you suspect a potential trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline now at 1-888-3737-888.


Additional Resources

Emily Davila is a freelance writer and consultant based in Bonn, Germany. She formerly served as Assistant Director of the Lutheran Office for World Community at the United Nations.


  1. This story is paraphrased from an ABC News special.
  2. According to the FBI, the cities with the highest incidence of child sexual exploitation are Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, St. Louis, Tampa, and Washington, D.C.
  3. Polaris Project.
  4. Berger, Joseph, "Despite Law, Few Trafficking Arrests", The New York Times, December 3, 2009.
  5. Upholding Human Dignity: Confronting Human Trafficking," was the theme of the October 2008 meeting of the Lutheran World Federation governing body, attended by around 165 participants at Chavannes-de-Bogis near Geneva, Switzerland. The meeting resolved to:
    • Provide moral leadership through preaching and other forms of public witness against the commercial exploitation of human beings, urging member churches and partners to name and shame the crime and the criminals engaged in it.
    • Challenge the widespread impunity enjoyed by human traffickers by insisting on the establishment of appropriate and effective laws against human traffickers and demanding prosecution of perpetrators.
    • Identifying specific persons at risk and vulnerable communities, and working to reduce the vulnerability and isolation of such individuals and communities through addressing issues like poverty and insecurity, and raising awareness.
    • Offering compassion, counseling and support to the victims of trafficking and promoting their reintegration in the community.




© February 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 2