The United Nations estimates 21 million people are victims of human trafficking. It’s a global problem, impacting every community, including ours here in Mid-Michigan.

Human trafficking is loosely defined as sex or labor exploitation, but Jane White, executive director for the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, has another word for it.

“Human trafficking is slavery,” said White. “In fact, I really prefer the term, slavery, because we’re talking about an ownership of people that are bought and sold.”

The task force is focused on educating the public about the issue, prosecuting the traffickers, and supporting the victims. As awareness of the problem has grown locally, so has the army of people fighting back.

“We started with 20 police officers in a room at Michigan State University. We now have over 135 different agencies,” said White.

According to White, sex trafficking usually starts as a relationship between trafficker and victim. The trafficker promises the victim a better life by selling sex.

Labor trafficking preys on the poor and unemployed. Traffickers promise victims a job and a paycheck. That promise, in both sex and labor trafficking, is what hooks the victims.

“What are the available kinds of opportunities that I can’t have and that someone promises me that it’s possible,” explained White.

Labor trafficking comes in a variety of forms. Agricultural workers are trafficked in Michigan, along with nannies and housekeepers. White says immigration plays a role.

“We do know that almost all of the immigration workers that come into Michigan are here legally but their papers are taken away,” she said. Once they lose their papers, they’re trapped by their trafficker, or imprisoned in the home where they work.

Many believe Michigan’s proximity to Canada contributes to human trafficking in our state, but White says that’s not really the case.

“That’s kind of a myth because the issue really is vulnerability of victims,” she said. The more people who are poor, struggling and disenfranchised, the more likely they are to be targeted.

No one knows how many people are victims of human trafficking. A 2015 Congressional report said it’s possible 17,500 people are trafficked into the country each year and as many as 100,000 children are trafficked within the country each year.

White says it’s almost impossible to quantify the problem, especially at the local level, but it is happening here.

“There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to get research and grants and when people say, how many victims did we have – and our inability to give a number,” she said. “Human trafficking, slavery, is a real issue in your community, in your neighborhoods.” 5:20

White said the one thing that could turn the tide on trafficking is reliable, evidence-based research and data collection, to better quantify the number of victims, how they’re being trafficked, and where it’s happening.