In Our Own Backyard
What industry rivals the global sale of illegal weapons and drugs, coming in at $32 billion per year? The answer may surprise you. Around the globe, the business of human trafficking is a monstrous crime discussed and fought on an international scale. While attention and legislative efforts have increased, the idea that human trafficking could be happening in a community’s own backyard, in the U.S., often goes amiss.
Human trafficking is the exploitation, subjugation and trade in human beings for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor. It generates $9.5 billion in the U.S. and approximately 300,000 children are at risk within our borders. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, Florida is the No. 3 state for number of calls received to its hotline, doubled since 2010. Central Florida is a particular hotbed, where 28 percent of all Florida child human trafficking victims are located in the 12-county region.
Leading the Fight
At the front lines of the fight against human trafficking is Florida Abolitionist, a non-governmental 501(c)3 organization established to end modern-day slavery by educating, equipping and empowering the community. The steering committee for the organization was formed in 2009 when Tomas J. Lares, founder and executive director, met with the group of “modern-day abolitionists.” There are seven different task forces in Central Florida combatting human trafficking, and Florida Abolitionist is considered the first responder and lead agency in East Central Florida where adult victims are rescued.
“Everyone said that in order to get this work done, you need to have some type of organization to receive funds and create accountability, so Florida Abolitionist was formed. We went from a cubby-hole in downtown Orlando to offices now in Altamonte Springs, College Park, and the task force in downtown Orlando,” said Lares.
At its core, Florida Abolitionist interfaces directly with victims. Once federal, state and local law enforcements identify a victim, Florida Abolitionist is the first to receive the call. Victim advocates then go out to build the report and help the victim determine if they want to go to a safe house in the area or back with family. The organization also provides gift cards and “Rescue Backpacks” that include items such as clothing and hygiene products.
Florida Abolitionist also offers an “Abolitionist Training Course” – a day and a half training offered to the general public that takes a look at slavery in the modern 21st century, answering questions such as “How are children recruited? How are adults recruited? And what does that look like now for justice?” The goal is to get the masses trained by giving them needed information, such as 800-numbers, and educating them on online safety so parents, teachers and students can realize that recruiting is happening locally.
“The whole concept of someone being a slave violates fundamental human rights. And we’re not even talking about civil rights – just basic human rights. To think, this has been part of our world history over and over again, and that’s why we call it modern-day slavery. It can change how it looks or the message behind it, but the psychology and the greed is still the same as of old,” commented Lares. “When I found out about it 11 years ago, I couldn’t imagine slavery 150 years ago, let alone today. This is not just an overnight trend or new cause.”
Human Trafficking Awareness Day
Each year, Florida Abolitionist along with dozens of governmental & non-governmental organizations, fair trade businesses, advocates, artist and community leaders, hold “Human Trafficking Awareness Day” at Lake Eola Park. This year’s 7th annual event was held on January 24 in conjunction with Human Trafficking Awareness Month, with over 80 agencies represented. The event included information and education, speakers and survivor testimonies, representatives from the Governor’s office, Mayor Teresa Jacobs, and more, all with the aim of addressing modern-day slavery as a local community.
Lares said, “The anti-human trafficking movement is small, but getting bigger. Seven years ago, no one even really knew about the issue, but we had the first awareness event in Florida. It’s grown from a handful to thousands.”