A room of BYU students sat in silence when asked if they knew the signs of human trafficking.
Some mentioned that they had read up on the issue online, but the overwhelming response was that they didn’t really know the signs and were anxious to know more.
BYU’s Anti-Human Trafficking Club held an event to encourage students to get involved. Lynette Widdison, a former humanitarian missions director and office manager for Airline Ambassadors International, spoke at the event about recognizing the signs of human trafficking and encouraged students to get involved in trying to stop it.
Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers use force or fraud to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against the individuals’ will, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
“It’s something that’s horrific, but it’s something we need to know about,” Widdison said. “We can’t bury our heads in the sand. Human trafficking happens in our backyard.”
The statistics support her claim.
Nearly 40,000 victims of human trafficking have been reported in the United States since 2007, according to data from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
Though it may not seem likely that this is a problem in Utah, police raided nearly a dozen massage parlors along the Wasatch Front in June on allegations of human trafficking and sex trafficking. More than a dozen women were taken into custody. Before the raid, there had already been five other reported cases of human trafficking in Utah during 2015 as of March 31, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
Human trafficking happens everywhere. One of the first ways people can help with this issue is by knowing and recognizing the signs of human trafficking, according to Widdison.
“If you start looking around, you’ll see things that look strange,” Widdison said. “If your gut tells you there is something wrong, there probably is.”
Common signs include people who are not free to leave and go as they wish, work excessively long hours, owe a large debt and can’t pay it off or live in houses that have unusually high security.
Widdison said it’s better to call in a false alarm than to not call at all.
More information on recognizing the signs of human trafficking can be found at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
“If you don’t recognize the signs, you’re not going to be able to help people when they are in trouble,” said BYU student Katherine Redd. “Nobody wants this. And if we can help, we should.”
BYU Anti-Human Trafficking Club president Kate Zeller agreed with Redd that people need to be aware of the signs.
“People assume it’s just a problem that happens in faraway places, but actually sex trafficking is worse in the United States than in many Third World countries,” Zeller said. “If ordinary people know how to spot human trafficking, they can help stop human trafficking in their own communities. It’s all about being aware and really looking out for your neighbor.”
Widdison made the point that people in the United States and the wealthy are still potential victims of human trafficking.
“Anybody can be trafficked,” Widdison said. “Nobody is above it. But nobody dreams when they are young of being trafficked when they grow up.”
Today there are more than 27 million slaves worldwide, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. This means there are more slaves today than ever before in the history of the world.
“Now that I know that there are people living like that, I can’t just not try to help,” Zeller said.
Runaway and homeless youth are among the most vulnerable, as well as foreigners who come to the United States with the hope of finding a better life. However, victims span all age groups, both genders and socioeconomic standards, according to the National Human Resource Trafficking Center.
“They didn’t choose this. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” she said. “Working with survivors is the most rewarding thing. Seeing people who have gone through so much, doing so much good.”
Blaming the victims is another huge problem when it comes to human trafficking, according to Widdison. Refusing to blame those who are victimized can be a big help.
With statistics on the rise, organizations have begun to spring up to help raise awareness and prevent human trafficking.
One of these groups is Operation Underground Railroad, an organization founded by BYU grad Tim Ballard to help free these slaves. The group hosted a sold-out screening of its film “Abolitionists” in Sandy on July 1.
Students can learn more about the BYU Anti-Human Trafficking Club at its weekly meetings Tuesdays at 7 p.m. in JKB 1010 and can help raise money for the club by participating in cleaning up the stadium after the Stadium of Fire on July 4.
“You can tell yourself that you’ll get involved later when life is less hectic and you’re more well established, but generally I don’t think that’s how this kind of thing works,” Zeller said. “Either you make doing something about the problems you are aware of a priority, or you don’t. If you don’t do it when you don’t have much, you won’t do it when you’re making a lot of money.”