MANCHESTER — One hundred fifty years ago this month, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation announcing his intention to free more than 3 million slaves living in the American South. Though the road to freedom was hard-won, Americans can take pride in marking this courageous turning point and the victory of what President Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
Unfortunately, this historic proclamation did not make slavery history. Indeed, there are more slaves on Earth today than during the entire 400 years combined of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
National Geographic reports that there are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today — more than at any other time in history — and that the human trafficking industry generates $32 billion in revenue every year. Human trafficking cases have been reported in every state of the union, including Maine.
In 2011, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline received nearly 50 calls from Maine. Because human trafficking is underreported, we know that this is the tip of the iceberg. Our state has more than 1,000 teens categorized by school systems as “homeless or living outside the family unit.” Many of them are also runaways, and especially desirable to traffickers. Traffickers may offer a place to stay, drugs or a meal — and this may lead to forced sex or prostitution. There are many documented cases of young girls being trafficked to Boston and New York, where sophisticated rings of criminals control them and ruin their lives.
The awareness that slavery happens today, even in Maine, motivates many of us to work harder to fight against it. Encouraging work is happening with the Portland Task Force on Trafficking, bringing federal and local law enforcement and social services providers together to work on awareness, detection and apprehension of traffickers.
We need to work together with our state legislators and our attorney general to improve Maine laws on human trafficking so these criminals can be apprehended and effectively prosecuted.
An exciting opportunity is coming up for anyone wishing to learn about human slavery. The second annual Not Here Conference will be held Oct. 25 and 26 in Auburn, convening national and international experts to educate us about the problem and possible community solutions. Interested individuals will join with law enforcement, health care workers, and those from the hospitality industry. There will also be a film festival associated with the conference.
Please consider joining this effort by attending the conference; sign-up information is available at www.not-here.me. Our hope is that every Mainer will say “Not Here!” and help to prevent trafficking in his or her community.
On the national front, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act 12 years ago. It is our nation’s blueprint for combating slavery at home and abroad. Every two to three years since then, Congress has unanimously reauthorized the act, allowing our government to adapt and keep pace with an evolving crime. According to Holly Burkhalter, vice president of government relations with International Justice Mission, a nonprofit organization working to end slavery and human trafficking worldwide, the act is “the most important piece of human rights legislation of our day.”
This year, Congress has allowed partisan bickering to stand in the way of passing this life-saving legislation. However, legislators still have time to set quarrels aside to get the job done.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins has lent her support by co-sponsoring the act, and has also played a leadership role in moving forward a piece of legislation that would prevent labor trafficking onto U.S. military bases. Maine residents can be proud of her leadership role on this pressing human rights issue, and should urge Sen. Olympia Snowe to help bring the act across the finish line before she leaves office. It is up to us to ensure that our elected officials value the things that we value: the rights of the vulnerable, human dignity, and freedom.
Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We all need to be a voice for the inherent dignity of every human being and do our part to end this terrible injustice.
Laurel Coleman, M.D., of Manchester, is a volunteer advocacy leader with International Justice Mission.
— Special to the Press Herald