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All of us can help bring an end to the evil of human trafficking

Often overlooked in the discussion on the plight of immigrants and refugees is the tragic reality of human trafficking. Each year, an estimated 17,000 vulnerable men, women and children are trafficked across our borders and then forced into conditions that can only be described as slavery. Many are fleeing terrible conditions at home, and they hope to find a better, more dignified life in the United States.

What they have found instead is the harsh welcome of perverse "entrepreneurs" who make a profit by enslaving the vulnerable in labor and sex trafficking. Those who are victimized by trafficking discover a worse affront to their human dignity and deeper suffering than they ever feared at home. And this evil is not only visited on unsuspecting migrants and refugees, but also on thousands of vulnerable youth and adults who have grown up here.

Human trafficking causes a person to engage in labor, services or commercial sex acts without consent of that person. It may involve physical or non-physical force, coercion or fraud. Pope Francis has said, "Human trafficking is an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ. It is a crime against humanity."

The evil of trafficking is hidden from the view of most of us, but it affects hundreds of people here in Nebraska on an ongoing basis. Because of the fear and coercion experienced by victims of trafficking, they are deprived of a fundamental freedom that belongs by right to every human person. They are forced into activities and situations that are beneath human dignity.

Sex trafficking is a particularly degrading and violent form of exploitation. Its victims are often young. In the Omaha area, about 50 percent of those advertised (on the Internet and other places) for commercial sex acts are estimated to be under 24 years old; 20 percent are estimated to be under 18. National estimates are that 54 percent of the victims of sex trafficking are under age 18.

It is sad, but not surprising, to realize that most victims are weak, vulnerable and already experiencing great adversity. Especially susceptible to exploitation are young people who have suffered from abuse or neglect, or who have run away from home and attempted to survive among strangers. Those suffering from mental illness, from homelessness and from isolation because of language or culture are also targets for victimization.

Several years ago, a Coalition on Human Trafficking was established here in Omaha. The Notre Dame Sisters, the Servants of Mary and the Sisters of Mercy took the lead in highlighting the evil of trafficking in our community and in creating a program of support for victims. They have been assisted by our archdiocesan Office of Victim Outreach and Prevention, as well as current and former law enforcement professionals.

Members of the coalition have been active in providing educational talks on this difficult topic to numerous audiences across our region. They have helped to create a public awareness campaign, using print and social media, to help us all become more sensitive to the possible exploitation of our vulnerable neighbors. They have partnered with local agencies who can offer safety, support and healing to victims who are trying to escape the slavery of being trafficked.

Most are not aware that major events, such as the upcoming College World Series, provide an occasion for increased activity of sex traffickers. This has nothing to do with the event itself. It is because so many people who do not know one another gather in hotels, restaurants, bars and on the streets. The crowds provide a kind of anonymity to the traffickers, enabling them to carry out their illegal and immoral activities alongside an otherwise wholesome event.

Our local coalition has equipped 70 volunteers to train the staffs of over 80 hotels in greater Omaha to spot the signs of sex trafficking. Those who work in the hospitality industry could well be in a position to report and begin the rescue of someone who is being victimized.

A century ago, Father Edward Flanagan was moved to speak out and to act on behalf of vulnerable young people who were at risk of exploitation. His good work continues 100 years later at Boys Town and in their many outreach programs. Then as now, at risk youth and adults depended on caring members of the community to recognize the threats against the vulnerable and to act to protect them. We can be proud that so many are becoming more aware of the evil of human trafficking in our time. I encourage you to become better informed about the issue and about how to help a victim who might be closer to you than you think. Jesus’ mandate to care for the least among us is clear.

If you would like to know more about our local Coalition on Human Trafficking, contact Kathy Kemler – 402-216-4023; notrafficking.org.

To report a possible case of human trafficking, call the Nebraska Adult and Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline – 800-652-1999.

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