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Virginia’s Human Trafficking Problem

Emma White '22

News Editor

This map shows the locations in Virginia where the most human trafficking occurs from reported cases in 2018. Courtesy of National Human Trafficking Hotline.

When we hear about cases of human trafficking, we don’t necessarily consider it a local issue, but human trafficking in Virginia may be a bigger issue than you thought. In 2018, Virginia was ranked sixth in the nation for active human trafficking cases, with almost 200 reported cases within the 2018 calendar year.

Statistics indicate that the vast majority of these victims were women and the highest percentage of cases were in the sex trafficking category. Virginia’s central location along the Eastern highway corridor serves as a reason for the prevalence of trafficking in the state, with Interstate 95 being one of the main points of concern. State government and law enforcement have paid special attention to this phenomenon in recent years, and many independent organizations throughout the state work closely with victims and officials in handling situations of human trafficking. Human trafficking is categorized as a modern form of slavery.

The International Labor Organization estimates there to be over 21 million human trafficking victims around the world and over 150 billion dollars generated in forced labor per year. Anyone can become a victim of human trafficking, but immigrants, LGBTQ+ youth, those in poverty, and victims of domestic violence are among the groups that are most commonly affected. Victims of human trafficking find themselves in a range of situations, and forms of forced labor include sex work, street begging, agricultural work, and even things like dangerous mining and quarrying in certain countries.

Subjection to this kind of treatment can have long term effects on victims’ physical and mental health, and people in these situations often find themselves with no way out. If their subjection to a trafficking ring is their only option for a livelihood, it is difficult to escape the cycle. The human trafficking industry spans far beyond the United States. Sexual exploitation is the most common form of trafficking globally, mostly affecting women and girls, followed by forced labor. Belarus, China, and Russia are among the countries with large numbers of human trafficking cases, meaning that either their governments have not taken the necessary steps to prevent trafficking, or they actively compel the use of forced labor within their limits.

State government and law enforcement have worked hard in recent years to remain vigilant and educated on how and why human trafficking occurs in Virginia, as well as how best to aid the victims of trafficking. The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services hosted a conference in November that offered training for all criminal justice professionals on how to properly identify and respond to reports of human trafficking in our state. Attendees of this 2 day conference were briefed on identification and prosecution of human trafficking in our state. In October, the Virginia General Assembly hired a new position, the State Trafficking Response Coordinator.

Angella Alvernaz, the newly hired response coordinator, will be tasked with coordinating efforts to report trafficking crimes as well as educating people on how to spot and subsequently report trafficking cases when they see them. Until 2015, there were no standalone human trafficking laws in the state of Virginia, making it the only state in the nation with no explicit legislation against this crime. Two laws were instituted that year, defining trafficking as a whole, establishing penalties for these crimes, and supplying provisions to protect and identify victims of trafficking.

However, even in the presence of these new laws, Virginia officials seem to fall short on some accounts. In January, a new bill was introduced to the Virginia General Assembly that would allow victims of human trafficking the opportunity to wipe charges, such as prostitution, from their record if they were incurred during their experience in a trafficking ring. Unfortunately, voting on this bill was postponed until 2021. The interstate systems that run through Virginia are key locations for human trafficking. The Interstate 95 corridor, or I-95, has been reported as a major route for trafficking in the United States, as well as Interstate 81. I-95 runs up the entirety of the East Coast, starting in Florida and extending all the way up to the Canadian border, while I-81 runs from Tennessee to New York.

Highways are risky due to the large number of truck stops along these areas, as these locations are a key point for trafficking in the U.S. There are multiple organizations throughout the state of Virginia that deal with aiding victims of human trafficking. One organization, Safe Harbor, offers programs in the Richmond area that aim to “save, transform, and rebuild lives.” Their services include group counseling, youth services, a helpline, emergency shelter, hospital accompaniment, and education and training within the community.

These are available to victims of human trafficking as well as other offenses, and are offered to anyone, regardless of race, gender, age, immigration status, or disability. Since victims are often dependent on their abusers financially, these services are provided free of charge. There are similar institutions in this state and beyond who work diligently to help these victims get their livelihoods back and play a big role in ending the phenomenon of human trafficking. For the general public, being aware and knowing the signs are the best things we can do.

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