UCF’s Student Union Cape Florida Ballroom was filled with survivors, advocates and law enforcement professionals — among other speakers and students — Thursday evening for a Human Trafficking Awareness seminar to bring to light the act of human trafficking in the Orlando area.
The university’s chapter of She’s the First — an organization that provides scholarships to girls in low-income countries with hopes of creating graduates and next generation leaders — hosted the seminar with International Justice Mission.
UCF student Sarah Lynn Ard, the chair of the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force, moderated the informational panel and prompted a variety of questions concerning topics such as labor trafficking both locally and globally, victims of trafficking, perception of the problem in the Orlando community, and how it’s being investigated and enforced.
One of the overruling topics of discussion during the seminar was precaution and protection from any form of human trafficking. From online safety to reporting suspicious job offers, panelists agreed unanimously that speaking out is important to the safety of college students, whether by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline or speaking to someone who can help.
Jose Ramirez, a special agent of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said he had no idea human trafficking was an issue in the Orlando community up until recently.
“I could not believe that was happening here. Mickey Mouse lives here; we don’t have human trafficking here,” Ramirez said of his thoughts when he was assigned to the Human Trafficking Task Force in 2013.
Linda Leonard-Woods, a panelist and chair of labor justice subcommittee at Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force, said Florida is the second or third largest state for human trafficking in general.
“Believe it or not, one of the very large groups that come up is college students, for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Globally, and here in the United States, the biggest group that gets taken advantage of is the immigrant population.”
In recent years, however, a great deal of change has been made in Orlando in regards to human trafficking.
Ramirez said law enforcement now realizes human trafficking is an issue in the area, and prosecutors have an idea of how to handle the cases.
Tomas Lares, founder and director of Florida Abolitionist Inc. and chairman of the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force, said part of the movement from here on out is enforcing the laws that already exist.
“I think that something’s changing in our culture,” Lares said. “Something’s happened, and I believe it’s your generation. The millennials have really caused an awakening.”
The UCF chapter of She’s the First President Lacey Rumberger said a huge goal of the organization is global awareness.
“We want people at UCF and in Florida to understand what human trafficking is. It’s not just something that happens to the girls we sponsor; it’s something that happens here in the United States, too,” Rumberger said.
For students and residents in the Orlando community looking to get involved and speak out, the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force will host the eighth annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day on Jan. 23, 2016 in Downtown Orlando.
Rosie Reitze is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.