Breaking free of chains

Slowing down human trafficking through prevention

Lucy Tu, Co-Editor-in-Cheif

It’s a warm Saturday morning, and you’re at the store picking up your weekly groceries. As you scan piles of crimson apples, you notice two figures in the corner of the aisle. A teenage girl fidgets nervously as her older companion pulls a box of crackers from the shelf. Your eyes lock on the girl’s, and something is off. Before you even blink, she’s tugged away. You go back to picking out fruit. You think nothing of it.

That girl is taken to the back seat of a car and driven away. She’s not going home or to school; she’s going to her pimp’s brothel. Her face and body are advertised on sketchy websites by the “friend” who sits in the driver’s seat. This physically and emotionally damaged girl has become a commodity and a slave.

This is the story of so many victims of human trafficking. This is the story of your cousin, the boy who sits next to you in math class, and maybe even you. This is human trafficking, and it’s going on all around us.

Human trafficking is defined as the trade of humans for the purpose of forced labor, sexual slavery, or commercial sexual exploitation. But while its definition is seemingly straightforward, the true implications of human trafficking are distorted and go much deeper.

One large misconception of human trafficking surrounds its geography. While some believe that trafficking is confined to large cities on the East and West coast, Nebraska actually has extremely high rates of human trafficking, particularly for teens.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH), since June of 2017, Nebraska has had 879 reported cases of human trafficking, with nearly half of the victims being minors. However, experts from the NHTH note that these numbers don’t include the large portion of victims from Nebraska that are trafficked across state lines via I-80.

Teens are especially at risk for trafficking for a combination of reasons. For one, traffickers are already more inclined to find younger victims. Young men and women are often targeted due to their high value in terms of prostitution and exhibition. Furthermore, after being trafficked, teen victims are considered easier to ‘season’, a term traffickers use when they psychologically and emotionally harm their victims into submission.

It is commonly believed that all victims of human trafficking are forcefully taken. In reality, however, many victims are trafficked after being coerced by a trafficker posing as a friend or significant other.

For this reason, youth are overall more vulnerable to being trafficked. Teens are typically more willing to build personal connections with strangers and less likely to recognize and react to the red flags of a toxic relationship. These factors, along with social media and exposure to drugs or alcohol, are considered common causes of high levels of teenage victims.

Omaha’s Set Me Free Project (SMFP) is an organization that focuses on combating Nebraska’s human trafficking problem by raising awareness and providing a source of prevention education, particularly for youth.

“The difference between prevention and awareness is awareness is ‘it’s happening. Good luck,’” SMFP Youth Program Director Sarah Wimers said. “Prevention is ‘This is happening. It’s real. It’s in your face. Here are the tools to be safe and navigate dangerous situations.’”

Many other in-state organizations also aim to combat human trafficking. Wimers believes that the plethora of anti-trafficking campaigns is necessity in Nebraska.

“We’re Nebraska nice. We’re genuinely nice people, and we’re trustworthy,” Wimers said. “People are sometimes afraid to listen to their gut feeling.”

The idea of being trafficked seems like an impossibility to many teenagers, due to the topic being obscured in a shroud of mystery and misconceptions. However, the fact is that human trafficking affects millions, and teens must do what they can to protect themselves.

“It’s okay to teach people your boundaries. It’s okay to listen to that voice in your head,” Wimers said. “It’s not okay to think ‘this can’t happen to me’.”