Central Florida has become a slave-trafficking hotspot decades after slavery was outlawed around the world.
Earlier this year, Governor Rick Scott declared the month of January Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Scott signed four bills into law that went into effect to raise awareness of human trafficking and its warning signs, protect survivors from further exploitation and establish harsher punishment against perpetrators, according to a press release.
“We must keep working to identify instances of human trafficking in Florida and help rescue victims,” Scott said in the release. “It is unfathomable that this evil occurs in our state, but by expanding services and passing important legislation this year, we are helping to save and heal the lives of our state’s most vulnerable.”
The same release stated that, in the fiscal year 2014-15, more than 1,200 instances of human trafficking were reported in the state through the Florida Abuse Hotline.
Jodi Cobb, an international photographer and author, photographed and produced the documentary “21st-Century Slaves” for National Geographic in 2003, which helped to put the issue of human trafficking on the national agenda.
“I think there’s a huge interest in human trafficking now that has really grown since I did my story — the problem is, so has trafficking,” she said. “When I photographed it, there were more slaves in the world than the four centuries of the African slave trade combined, and now there’s even more.”
Blair Pippin, associate director of Florida Abolitionist, a human-trafficking awareness group, said the ease of acquiring slaves and the decreased value of human life has led to a growth in the number of slaves worldwide.
“I believe that people value human life less than they once did,” Pippin said. “Even when slavery was legal, the slaves were seen as valuable. Today, they are disposable.”
Kevin Bales, former president of anti-trafficking organization Free the Slaves, said that a slave would cost the equivalent $40,000 to $50,000 in today's money during the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the mid-1800s. The average cost of a slave today is $90, which Pippin claimed contributed to the growing prevalence of trafficking.
“If you spend $90 on something, you don’t treat it the same as something you spend $50,000 dollars on, regardless of what it is,” Pippin said.
There are various types of human trafficking, such as sex trafficking, labor trafficking, infant trafficking and organ trafficking. Each category has subsections such as domestic servitude, debt bondage, sexual exploitation, forced prostitution and illegal adoption.
Pippin said that if a minor were to be involved in any sort of sexual exploitative behavior, they are considered to be a victim of human trafficking because minors are unable to consent to any sexual activity. For adults to be a victim of human trafficking, Pippin said that either force, fraud or coercion had to be involved and proven.
“With an adult, they have to prove either force, fraud, or coercion.” Pippin said. “Those are the three key things than have to be proven.”
Pippin said Central Florida law enforcement sees more cases of sex trafficking than any other type of trafficking at this time. He believed this could be because labor trafficking is harder to spot and to prove. Sex trafficking requires a buyer, which makes it easier to prove one of the three required instances above, whereas labor trafficking often occurs right under our noses, said Pippin.
As one of the biggest tourism hotspots in the world, Orlando is a prime location for these crimes to take place. Pippin said the transient nature of Central Florida allows traffickers to thrive.
Annie Seay, director of community development for the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force, said people are victimized in the area every single day.
“The trend we notice is that traffickers prey on the most vulnerable, which includes children and youth, people with a history of abuse [or] violence, people with limited language proficiency and people with emotional and intellectual disabilities,” Seay said.
Through the advocacy of groups such as Florida Abolitionist and Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task force, the crime is being addressed, and victims are receiving care.
In 2014, the organization saved approximately 50 victims.
In 2015, more than 100 victims were helped.
“We have great success in training law enforcement, health-care professionals, attorneys and the general community, which has led to an increase in tips called in, increase in victims identified, increase in arrests and successful prosecution,” Seay said.
While law enforcement and advocacy groups are doing their part to end modern-day slavery, anyone can help.
”People in this community don’t realize it’s happening here.” Pippin. “You know, you watch the movie Taken and you think, whatever it’s just happening overseas, but what they don’t realize is it's going on right here in our community.”
Rosie Reitze is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @rosie_ucf or email her at RosieR@centralfloridafuture.com.