Increased public awareness, training and services are needed.
While many Minnesotans are celebrating holidays with family and friends, others among us fear they'll never see family or a friendly face again. They could be quietly suffering in any town or neighborhood -- girls and women forced into prostitution; laborers toiling away under dangerous conditions; nannies and other domestic workers trapped in forms of indentured servitude.
They are modern-day slaves, vulnerable victims of the human trafficking trade. Hundreds of them are being abused right here in Minnesota.
Earlier this month, the problem surfaced close to home again when local and federal authorities uncovered a prostitution ring operating out of a Minneapolis massage parlor and a St. Louis Park apartment building. Several Asian women who had been brought into the United States illegally were involved, and a Chinese national was arrested for trafficking. Police say at least a dozen similar operations are scattered throughout the Twin Cities.
Those are examples of this complicated and somewhat hidden crime. However, thanks to the good work of Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) researchers and a state task force on trafficking, better information is being gathered about the problem and how to address it. Based on the data, it's clear that trafficking can be reduced through increased public awareness, improved training for police, health care and other providers, tough laws and expanded victim services.
In 2005, the state Legislature required DPS to staff the 24-member task force and produce annual reports on trafficking. What it has learned so far is that victims of labor and sex trafficking come from all over the state, nation and world. The same conditions of poverty, limited opportunity and alienation apply to victims from the Third World or rural Minnesota. The study rightly suggests continued examination of the vulnerabilities that put people at risk. Once those are better understood, effective prevention strategies can be developed.
Researchers also found that many who might be in a position to help victims aren't aware of the problem. Therefore, the study wisely recommends additional training for law enforcement, clergy and health professionals to help them recognize the signs of human exploitation.
And it emphasizes expanding the kind of response that women in the recent Minneapolis bust received. Rather than being arrested, representatives from the Jerry Vick Task Force, which works with crime victims, helped connect them to social services and temporary housing.
While it is proper for authorities to target rings that facilitate and profit from trafficking, it is also necessary to hold up a societal mirror. Most of the johns from the recent bust were well-to-do men, including a doctor and a business owner. Human beings would not be forced into servitude if there was no market for what their captors were selling.
We'd all like to think slavery is a thing of the past -- that it's an ugly, brutal chapter in U.S. history that closed with the Emancipation Proclamation. But the evidence shows the practice is alive and well in Minnesota. That means more must be done to prosecute the perpetrators and help the victims.