‘The ones nobody misses’: Scope of human trafficking in Alabama wider than reported, experts say
This article was originally published by Montgomery Advertiser, in partnership with The Fuller Project, on February 26th, 2019, by Advertiser Reporter Melissa Brown and Fuller Project Correspondent Rikha Rani.
The cursive script scrawls down Claira’s skin, looping across the finger on her left hand that, at another moment in time, might hold a ring.
But for now, it still holds the name of her trafficker.
“It says ‘Life,’ because he says that he gives his women life,” she said.
‘I was looking to be rescued.’
In 2019, Human Trafficking Is A Widely Acknowledged Problem In The U.S. But It’s Also Deeply Misunderstood, And Misconceptions Allow Traffickers To Operate Unnoticed—And Often In Plain Sight.
Claira met him when she was 14. They were in a mall. She was with her friends, and he was with his.
There was an almost 10-year age gap between the two groups. It didn’t deter the older men. They started hanging out with Claira and her friends on weekends, drinking and playing dominoes. Claira, struggling in an abusive home, began spending time alone with him, a well-dressed 23-year-old. After knowing him for over a year, she moved in with him.
“In my situation, he was my hero,” said Claira. “My circumstances sucked. I was looking to be rescued. He came along, and that was my way out of my life at home.”
Within months, she was one of a cadre of young women he transported and sold for sex in strip clubs up, down and around the southeastern United States. She was in and out of the sex trade for a decade before finally getting help at a residential treatment center for survivors of human trafficking in Alabama, where she now lives.
“That isn’t life,” Claira said, touching her tattoo with her thumb.
Most people wouldn’t recognize Claira’s story as human trafficking.
“The general perception is that human trafficking is the movie ‘Taken,’ and that it happens in Southeast Asia and other countries, but it doesn’t happen here,” said Christian Lim, a researcher at the University of Alabama who studies the crime. “And if it does happen here, it’s a girl walking through the mall and getting grabbed and thrown into a van. Of course, that has happened. But it’s definitely not the predominant way that human trafficking happens.”
These misconceptions allow traffickers to operate unnoticed. Debunking myths around trafficking is one of the biggest challenges to addressing the problem, Lim said.
More than 200 cases of sex or labor trafficking have been reported in Alabama since 2015. Of these cases, which only reflect calls to the hotline and not every instance of trafficking, more than 70 percent were exploited for sex, 85 percent were women, and nearly 30 percent were children. More than 60 percent were U.S. citizens who were trafficked not across borders, but in their own neighborhoods — at homes and in schools, at truck stops and in massage parlors, in hotel rooms and at sporting events.
Lim believes the number of survivors in the state is closer to 1,000. Last summer, he and a team of UA researchers conducted a study to investigate the scope of human trafficking in Alabama. They held focus groups with 114 professionals who work with trafficking survivors locally. That research yielded an estimate of 908 potential survivors of human trafficking in 2017 alone, of which almost 60 percent were children.
“Almost every type of human trafficking that exists around the world is happening to some degree here in Alabama,” Lim said.
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