The year is 2012 and slavery is alive and thriving.
It goes by a different name now. Called human trafficking, it’s the moving of people across borders for the purpose of forced prostitution and forced labor. But whatever the name, the outcome is the same: One group of humans exploited by another.
Although it’s relatively new in terms of criminal activity, human trafficking is one of the fastest growing illegal industries in the world. It reaches across the globe into every country and state, including South Carolina.
We’ve had people on farms and resorts forced to work for free, teenage girls brought from other countries and forced into prostitution, even cases of parents selling their children.
But there are people working to shut it down, and after years of struggling, advocates said a law passed in June finally has it right.
The Polaris Project — a nonprofit fighting against modern slavery — agrees. The group just released its new ratings and South Carolina was recognized as most improved, lifting it from no-law status all the way to the top 21 (see map).
“We were the dirty dozen and then the nine lagging behind,” said Betty Houbion, talking about the states that were seen as derelict. “But now we have almost all the key components so our law is very, very strong.”
Houbion and Rep. Nelson L. Hardwick of Horry County were among the first to push for a human trafficking law, and each credits the other for its success.
Signed by Gov. Nikki Haley in June, the law goes into effect in December.
One of the most important provisions is the inclusion of asset forfeiture for those convicted of the crime. The law also increases penalties and fines, and establishes a task force to coordinate efforts and raise public awareness.
“This is as tough as we get against people committing crimes,” said state Sen. Bradley Hutto, who introduced the bill in the senate.
It was passed unanimously by both Houses.
Proponents of the trafficking law believe they have addressed the major issues, although there is still more to do.
“There are always going to be ways we can improve on the legislation, but I feel the key points have been addressed,” said Kelly O’Neill-Bagwell, president of the Eastern Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
One thing she would like to see is a school curriculum that teaches children about the dangers and how to protect themselves against traffickers.
Houbion said they also need to establish Safe Harbor zones and guidelines.
One of the reasons it was so hard to pass a comprehensive law is that few people have even heard of human trafficking, Hardwick said. And when he explained what it was — slavery, right here, right now — people didn’t believe him.
“We just kept hammering away at it, and we finally came up with a very good bill,” Hardwick said, noting that there were many people and organizations working behind the scenes.
Sister Mary Thomas Neal, a Sister of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, has been involved with the human rights issue for 17 years, spreading the word and serving as a liaison for non governmental organizations working to end human trafficking.
She said people have to educate themselves on the signs of human trafficking. Get to know the people around you, especially immigrants. She said people from Russia have been a prime target and there is a large population of them in the Myrtle Beach area. Also, look for signs of physical abuse or houses with all the windows covered.
“It’s going on all around us and we don’t know it,” Sister Mary Thomas said.
One action everybody can take is prayer, she said.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a Committee on Migration and both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have spoken against the criminal activity.
Recently, Pope Benedict addressed the United Nations on the increasing scourge of women and girls forced into prostitution. Statistics show that 90 percent of enslaved people are women and children, with the prime age being 12 to 14 years.
One reason it is so difficult to fight this crime is because the victims are scared to come forward, O’Neal-Bagwell said.
“Traffickers can be very dangerous,” she said, adding that anyone with suspicions should call authorities or the hotline number 1-888-3737-888.