The GFWC North Myrtle Beach Woman’s Club held its first annual community forum on October 12, 2016. This historic forum focused on raising awareness and educating the community on human trafficking—a horrific crime largely happening all around us yet unseen by the public. As a global issue we invited members of the community to help plan and support this event.
Without hesitation the City of North Myrtle Beach (NMB), NMB Chamber of Commerce, Elliott Realty, City of Myrtle Beach, Horry County Government, and McLeod Seacoast, WPDE ABC15 and the NMB Times joined us as sponsors. Their sponsorship contributions allowed us to keep participant costs down and opened the event up to a wider audience that may not have otherwise been able to attend.
Despite hurricane Matthew, 137 people attended the forum, which is a testament to the importance and community interest in addressing human trafficking. Attendees represented a wide mix of people across the community: private citizens, both working and retired; law enforcement; business owners; and state legislators such as SC Senator Greg Hembree and representatives from Congressman Tom Rice’s office. There were attendees from as far away as Virginia. There were also a number of people representing area resources in the audience and as speakers. We had three speakers who have devoted significant time to and effort towards eradicating human trafficking.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson was the key note speaker. He has successfully led the enactment of legislation that enables the arrest and prosecution of traffickers. Our second speaker, Robyn Causey, a national expert and author, has worked in and across multiple states to investigate and document human trafficking. Carrie Fisher-Sherard, our final speaker, is an Assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to South Carolina. Carrie has been focused on human trafficking for the past 7 years and has been able to bring national resources to bear. She and Alan Wilson’s office have worked together to pursue and prosecute cases that have implications beyond our state borders.
Students studying videography and their teacher from the North Myrtle Beach High School volunteered to video tape and photograph the day’s events. Their finished product will be a series of podcasts that we can post on our web site and that can be down loaded to DVDs. We also partnered with professors from Coastal Carolina University and the Osher Life Long Learning Institute (OLLI) to hold a follow up workshop on October 18th. The workshop was facilitated by Dr. Deborah Breed. Meeting space was donated by OLLI at the behest of Dr. Carol Osborne. Attendees were given an opportunity to further explore facets of human trafficking based on what they learned at the forum.
So what did we learn?
Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry. Alan Wilson told us that it is second in sales only to the drug trade, but is quickly moving up because people are ‘reusable,’ that is they can be sold over and over again, whereas drugs are sold and consumed once. The cost to acquire and hold a trafficking victim is also typically less than it costs to buy drugs.
According to Robyn Causey’s research the average cost of a slave is $90…if they have to buy the person at all. Victims may be kidnapped and then held using fear tactics; fear for their life or that of family members. They may also be tricked or lured into the life and then retained through fear and coercion. Low self-esteem, poor family life lack of friends and family involvement are key factors in a traffickers’ ability to lure someone in, specifically for the sex trade. But economic class is not a hard and fast risk factor. Low self-esteem and a desire to ‘belong’ are not feelings that are exclusive to lower income people.
Traffickers shower the victims with affection and material things until they reach a point the victim is guilted into complying with trafficker’s requests. One myth debunked is that just because the person initially willingly went with the trafficker that he or she chose to be trafficked.
Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall into the hands of traffickers in their own countries and abroad. There were over 17,000 cases reported in the U.S. last year. Almost every country in the world is affected by trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims. Alan Wilson cited the United States as the number one destination for trafficked victims.
Trafficking is defined as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to someone having control over another person (e.g., a parent), for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery or servitude. Carrie added that people may be trafficked to harvest their organs but we did not spend time exploring this aspect.
It was interesting to learn that very little data is available on labor trafficking even though it is recognized as significant issue. According to Detective Peter Woods of the Myrtle Beach Police Department, labor trafficking is a big issue in the Grand Strand in our agricultural and hospitality industries.
Labor trafficking may be harder to pin-point because often the victims are from other countries. Some are undocumented and all have been conditioned to fear the police. Even people who come here legally on work visas can fall prey. Upon arrival, their passports are taken so they have no proof of who they are. They may be forced to work around the clock, with poor living conditions, wages are stolen, and victims are given little to no money for their work.
Trafficking recruiters are not always strangers to the victims. Statistics show that a little over half (54%) of the recruiters are strangers, but 46% know the victim. Another myth is that traffickers are men. Of the reported cases, 42% of the traffickers were women, 52% were men, and 6% were a mix of men and women.
What are the signs?
There are indicators that someone may be vulnerable or trapped by traffickers. Whether a parent, friend, neighbor, or employer, we may be in a position to recognize these signs and take steps to head off a trafficking situation.
There are also indicators that someone may be “in the life.” The list below includes some of the more common signs. Anyone of these points is not proof of a trafficking situation, but if you see it and it gives you pause you may want to report your suspicions to the authorities.
A significant portion of the forum was dedicated to identifying and discussing resources. The afternoon session called “Experience from the Frontline,” was presented in a panel format and was made up of directors from Lighthouse for Life, Doors to Freedom, Seahaven, the president of the Eastern Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking, lawyer from Myrtle Beach Immigration Law Office, and two Police Detectives from North Myrtle Beach and Myrtle Beach. Each of these organizations is a critical piece to helping prevent, rescue or rebuild victims’ lives.
There is a national movement hosted and funded by the Department of Health and Human Services that provides literature on human trafficking. They established a national hotline that anyone can call and be linked to local resources for help. The national hotline number is 888-373-7888. People can also text HELP or INFO to SMS 233733. There is a local program called Safe Place, sponsored by Seahaven that helps children up to the age of 21 find shelter from abusers and life on the street. These havens are recognizable by yellow, diamond shaped signs in business windows with the words Safe Place.
One of the goals for the community forum was to get the conversations started in the community and we achieved just that. People hung around when the event was over, exchanging information and collaborating on how they can work together.
Our NMB Mayor, Marilyn Hatley, reported human trafficking was on the agenda at subsequent meetings she attended in Myrtle Beach and other places in Horry County and our forum was part of the discussion. Feedback from participants indicate there was a lack of knowledge before attending the forum of human trafficking in general, and people were unaware of the fact that is happening so close to home.
The members of the GFWC North Myrtle Beach Woman’s Club are proud to be active members of our community and honored that we were entrusted by the community to organize and manage such a momentous event. Please view our Community Forum Facebook Album of images of the event.