Point of View

Progress, but more work ahead on human trafficking in NC

December 3, 2013 

This year our General Assembly members reached across the aisle on an issue of staggering significance, the trafficking of people in our state. The law now comes down harder on those who buy and sell prostitutes, and it offers legal relief for the women – and especially the children – who are exploited as prostitutes.

That’s a great start, but a lot of work remains on spreading the word on how and why our statute has changed. Law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, social service agencies and hospitals have to make trafficking a priority for the changes to matter.

Like many North Carolinians, law enforcement and other public servants often think of human trafficking as a distant, international problem. Immigrant workers entrapped in the Persian Gulf might come to mind, for instance, rather than nearby experiences like the Fayetteville man sentenced Monday in federal court for holding two teenage girls hostage and prostituting them. Agencies charged by our new state law with responding to human trafficking will make it a priority only when they see this global problem as a local one as well.

The N.C. Coalition Against Human Trafficking has zeroed in on this need. It offers a training program that can help responders relate to the problem locally and get prepared to implement our new law. The coalition also has organized cutting-edge law enforcement, social services, legal and medical professionals – including from the Raleigh Police Department – into six Rapid Response Teams that can serve as a model as more North Carolina cities and counties join the response.

Human trafficking is a challenge of globe-spanning proportion, and North Carolina lives within this context.

Last month Duke Law professor Jayne Huckerby brought anti-trafficking leaders from the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and the New Hanover County District Attorney’s office together to explore the issue with law students who will assist the U.N. in developing guidelines to provide justice for trafficking victims. These advocates will be in a special position when they graduate to introduce our law enforcement and prosecutors to best practices from other jurisdictions around the world.

“Trafficking knows no border,” Joy Ezeilo of the U.N. reminded law students at Huckerby’s forum. “And no one country can combat it alone. You need partnership, including public-private partnership.”

Partnership with other countries will be even more important as North Carolina faces the next task of making our human trafficking legal changes comprehensive. Sex trafficking grabs the most attention, but it is not the only form of trading people. Labor trafficking – enslaving temporary immigrants and other people as manual workers – is another challenge for North Carolina.

One of our better documented cases involves a broker operating in 2009 as Pro Tree. Pro Tree sponsored temporary visas for 12 Guatemalan workers on the pretense that they would work in our seasonal forestry industry. Instead, the broker quickly moved them to Connecticut where, according to a Cornell University study, they were forced to work 80 hours a week for net wages between $1.09-$1.20 an hour while being denied medical care, humane housing or access to their visas.

Some of the General Assembly’s changes to sex-trafficking law could help improve our response to labor trafficking cases. Just as law enforcement officers now have to investigate whether someone suspected of prostitution is actually a trafficking victim, statute could also require that they check for labor trafficking warning signs when they encounter high-risk circumstances.

Partnership with other countries is integral. Knowing global migration patterns cannot be our law enforcement officers’ responsibility, but Consular offices would be able to indicate whether circumstances we observe on the ground align with what they understand about their citizens’ migration. And, when warning signs are present, workers are likely to be far more open with home-country Consular staff than they would be with our law enforcement agencies.

Human trafficking is a trying issue, and General Assembly members like Sens. Thom Goolsby and Tamara Barringer, as well as former Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, deserve credit for improving our defenses against the sexual enslavement of women and children. Much remains to be done, though, and North Carolina is still waiting for a parallel effort on labor trafficking. Institutions like the N.C. Coalition Against Human Trafficking and Duke’s international human rights legal clinic are as vital now as ever.

Matthew Leatherman of Raleigh is a freelance contributor on state-level international affairs.

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