OUR POSITION: Human trafficking is a problem we all can help solve

There's a billion-dollar industry operating in our backyard, and we need to do all we can to shut it down.

The United Nations reports 27 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking. Those who abuse and control them are part of a global enterprise that generates an estimated $32 billion each year.

Florida is third in the country for human trafficking cases. Two of the biggest trafficking cities are Miami and Tampa, and we're in the middle. The average victim in Florida is between 9 to 15 years old, slightly younger than the national average. Our large immigrant population and accessible airports and seaports, among other factors, make the state attractive to human traffickers.

The term "human trafficking" conjures images of people being thrown into vans by strangers. But this usually isn't the case.

Many are trafficked by someone they know, either a relative or a domestic partner. Victims are coerced by someone they trust into prostitution or forced labor.

Last week, the Center for Abuse and Rape Emergencies of Charlotte County hosted a Human Trafficking Awareness seminar. The event spotlighted cases of domestic violence that turn into human trafficking. Sun reporter Anne Easker told the story of Connie Rose, who spoke of brutal sexual exploitation by her father.

Rose's father rented her out for sex, but it wasn't until more than a decade ago that she realized she had been a victim of human trafficking.

Rose now works with other survivors.

“Survivors are not invisible,” Rose said. “They are in plain sight right in front of you and possibly in the same room as you.”

According to UNICEF, domestic violence is a "push factor" that can lead to someone becoming vulnerable to human trafficking. A U.S. State Department report noted that 70% of adult female trafficking victims had experienced domestic abuse prior to being trafficked.

Domestic abuse is also a major factor in many children becoming runaways. One in three runaway teens will be lured by a sex-trafficker and forced into prostitution within 48 hours of being on his or her own, according to a national study.

Each year, about 300,000 children — age 12, on average — are forced into prostitution, sometimes having to provide sexual acts for as many as 15 men a night, according to Tampa-based advocacy group Bridging Freedom. The group estimates about 75 percent of trafficked minors in the Tampa Bay area are runaways.

The U.S. Department of Justice says a child is sold for sexual exploitation every two minutes.

These are sobering statistics, to be sure. Fortunately, lawmakers seem to be paying attention.

Last year, Florida became the first state to require public schools to teach human trafficking prevention in grades K-12.

In November, the Department of Justice announced more than $100 million in grants to combat human trafficking and provide assistance to victims throughout the country.

We seem to have turned a corner in our awareness of this issue, but still, more needs to be done.

Let's shine the light on the predators lurking in the shadows. And let's make sure the victims hiding in plain sight know we see them.

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