“I don’t know how you can not be interested in solving this.”
Susan Samueli, a long-time Orange County philanthropist, was referencing human trafficking, the practice of forcing people into sexual or manual labor for the financial benefit of others. In recent years this ancient social scourge has been kicked into hyper-drive by factors as modern as high-speed Internet and the pandemic to a rising sense of economic desperation.
But the issue, for the Anaheim Ducks co-owner, seems less about data and trends than it is about simple decency.
“I have daughters,” Samueli said, her voice trailing off.
“It’s such a despicable problem.”
It’s also a long-time local cause, particularly in Orange County.
The county’s stark mix of extreme wealth and poverty, combined with large international communities and lots of tourism, has made Orange County a national hotspot for certain types of human trafficking. And many local programs to fight it – from the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force to trafficking-focused programs at the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department -–- are considered national models.
Still, as established as the issue is, trafficking is getting a new turn in the spotlight.
In recent months a series of unrelated events – an Orange County Grand Jury report, new data about trafficking activity, a slow-building effort to legalize prostitution in parts of California – have prompted advocates, led by Samueli, to suggest that now is a smart time for a new community conversation about the issue.
Essentially, Samueli says they want people to know that even though trafficking is a complex and entrenched problem, it can be vanquished if we care enough to do so.
“Somehow, we have to make the public become more aware of what trafficking really is,” Samueli said.
“Awareness, in this case, really could be a powerful factor.”
That was one of the messages Wednesday, Sept. 13, when about 100 advocates, experts and politicians gathered at the Orange County Museum of Art to hear about human trafficking from people who, in different ways, work on the issue’s front lines.
The meeting, led by Samueli’s group, Ending Human Trafficking Collaborative, presented a wide range of myth-busting information about trafficking.
For example, experts pointed out that trafficking isn’t primarily about foreign nationals being brought to the United States to work in the sex trade against their will. In reality, other types of forced labor – from nail salons to car washes to the people who make the low-priced shirts and shoes worn by at least some of the people in the audience – is at least as big a part of the trafficking world as sex work.
And, the experts added, victims of all types of trafficking tend to be domestic, not foreign nationals.
Last year, in fact, 78 of the 85 children identified as “commercially exploited” victims of sex trafficking in Orange County were locals, said Sandra Morgan, a professor at Vanguard University and leader of the Global Center for Women and Justice who helped organize the event at OCMA.
Morgan said such statistics show how the Internet and widespread child exploitation – and, recently, the isolation of the pandemic – have combined to produce a huge recent spike in sex trafficking.
“During COVID, vulnerability was amplified and online recruiting grew exponentially,” said Morgan, a former nurse who has worked as a federal advisor on human trafficking.
“It’s an educated guess; I don’t have a lot of new data and I don’t trust the data that I do have,” Morgan added. “But it matches what law enforcement and others are seeing.”
That last point – a lack of centralized, reliable data about all levels of human trafficking, from victims to perpetrators to customers – was a subject in a June report from the Orange County Grand Jury titled “Human Sex Trafficking in Orange County.”
The Grand Jury wrote:
“A specialized law enforcement human trafficking database is needed that can track the different, but correlated information on human trafficking. A database is an essential component to the fight against human trafficking. For example, such systems are in place to combat gang suppression and car theft activity in Southern California. A similar system should be in place to combat human sex trafficking.”
Such comparisons suggest how authorities still underestimate or understate the damage of human trafficking. That, too, was a theme of the event at the Orange County Museum of Art and something Samueli and others said they hope to change.
After telling the audience that human trafficking affects about 28 million people around the world and generates at least $150 billion a year for the people who control them, John Richmond, a former federal prosecutor who from 2018 through 2021 served as the U.S. Ambassador at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, drew a few gasps when he said the United States “spends more to combat wildlife trafficking than it spends on human trafficking.”
Richmond, who noted that only in the last few years has every nation on earth explicitly outlawed slavery, said that even though the United States is getting better at combating human trafficking and generally is viewed as an international leader on the issue, it’s still largely a version of prosecutorial whack-a-mole.
Samueli, among others, said one issue that could change the dynamics of human trafficking is to focus as much on consumer demand as on the victims who are forced to be suppliers.
“I don’t understand why we just can’t stop the people who are buying trafficked services. If you get your nails done, or people doing your yard work, right now people have no idea if the people they’re hiring are working voluntarily,” she said.
“And when it comes to trafficking girls. I would put the photos of the buyers up at the airport,” Samueli added. “I think that would send the message of, ‘If you don’t want this to happen to you, then don’t do this.’”
Samueli, wife of Broadcom co-founder Henry Samueli, suggested everything from new technologies (“an app that could help tell consumers about the labor behind a certain product”) to political action against a new push to create legal red light districts in some parts of California could be on the table for her group going forward. She also said she isn’t sure of the specific next step for her group, but more public awareness events are coming.
That, on its own, might help.
Richmond, who has prosecuted federal trafficking cases in Santa Ana and now leads the non-profit human rights organization Libertas Council, said change on human trafficking will come only if the public – as consumers, as voters, as advocates – takes the issue seriously.
“The question is going to be this: Do we care more about people than traffickers care about profits?”
Source: Orange County Register