This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
For many, the words "human trafficking" evoke thoughts of nightlife in exotic cities on the other side of the world. Images, inspired by popular blockbusters such as "Taken," tell the dark tale of red-light districts run by organized crime syndicates, far removed from our daily existence, encouraging a sense of detachment from the crisis.
These narratives frequently fail to capture the magnitude of the crime, focusing on only one victim or a handful of survivors. The reality is that human trafficking is not confined to foreign countries or singular events. It is estimated that 27 million adults and 13 million children are victims of human exploit across the world, including the United States and even Utah. Many fail to realize that victims of trafficking can be found anywhere including the house next door.
Capt. Fernando Rivero, Unified Fire Authority and member of the Utah Trafficking Task Force, stated that lack of awareness and a misunderstanding of the crime are factors that cause Utahns to believe that trafficking does not exist in our state.
"We sometimes do not know what to look for even though the harsh evidence might be right in front of us." He stated that, "While responding on emergency incidents, in hindsight, over the years there were many red flags of exploitation and abuse that at the time, I did not recognize. Blacked-out windows, mattresses and beds used in the Reiki studios, locks on doors, a service bell on the front desk and young employees that refused to engage. These were all signs that told a very different story than just normal business dealings. This is why learning about trafficking is critical for first responders, service providers, and the larger community."
Annie Fukushima, assistant professor with the University of Utah College of Social Work and expert witness on trafficking, says, "Human trafficking is complex. When you think about it, the very same systems that create victims also create criminals."
Victims of any form of abuse have a higher likelihood of engaging in drug use, delinquent behaviors and suffer repeat victimization.
Nicholas Kristof notes in his book, "Half the Sky," "An essential part of the brothel business model is to break the spirit of girls, through humiliation, rape, threats, and violence." So how then do we break the cycle of victims being treated like criminals?
While, again, the issue is complex, Fukushima proposes that we "enact a form of witnessing that does not involve criminalization of the victims."
Capt. Rivero echoed that sentiment, expressing a "need to shift the manner in which we view and treat people involved in the commercial sex trade."
He stated, "We need to have this conversation from the perspective of exploitation. Not morality or judgment, but compassion towards the most vulnerable individuals exploited by the buyers, the sellers, the drug dealers and the motel owners who prey on those involved in prostitution who lack choices."
He further said that we must remove the blinders and stop refusing to see the woman, man, child or transgender person engaged in sexual economy. These are individuals with trauma and pain a past one can barely begin to comprehend and yet we shun them, refusing to acknowledge their humanity. He asked, "How can we fix the problem unless we care enough to see those most harmed by the crisis?"
We must acknowledge that victimhood and criminality are intimately intertwined and find a way to separate the two in order to effectively address trafficking in our community and better serve those most impacted by modern day slavery.
Nubia Pena is a third-year law student at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law and is founder and president of the Social Justice Student Initiative. Susan Folsom is a third-year medical student at the University of Utah School of Medicine and is the founder and president of the Health and Human Rights Interest Group. They have established a partnership at the University of Utah to bring awareness to the socio-legal and medical concerns faced by trafficking survivors.