By Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton
As we commemorate National Crime Victims' Rights Week across the country, we reflect on the many victims in Michigan and their families in their suffering. One of the largest and yet often overlooked classes of crime victims are the women, men, and children who have been enslaved in the bonds of human trafficking. Although significant progress has been made, there is much to be done in the Great Lakes State to combat this fast-growing crime.
Experts estimate 27 million people are trafficked worldwide annually, reaping $32 billion in illegal profits, making it the fastest-growing black market in the world.
And it is not just a phenomenon happening in far-away places or isolated to major cities like Detroit or Flint. Human trafficking happens here in Southwest Michigan. The Manasseh Project in Grand Rapids helps victims of trafficking get back on their feet. Local groups including the Kalamazoo Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition and the Southwest Michigan Human Trafficking Taskforce are working to shine a light on this cruel crime by promoting public awareness in our communities.
In a recent Michigan case, a man nicknamed “Gruesome” truly lived up to his name. He enslaved two teenage runaways, forcing them to work as prostitutes on the streets of Detroit. When they resisted, the girls were brutally abused, both physically and sexually.
Many victims are enslaved in our own neighborhoods, and many are either unable to escape their captors or too afraid to ask for help. Approximately 40 percent of human trafficking cases involve the sexual exploitation of a child. In the U.S., it is estimated that nearly 300,000 children are trafficked for sex every year.
Right now hundreds of innocent people, mostly women and children, are being forced to work as laborers and sex workers in modern-day slavery. These are our daughters, sons, neighbors and friends being sold by thugs for money through force, fraud, and coercion.
Human trafficking is a pervasive problem we must tackle aggressively. That is why the Michigan Commission on Human Trafficking was launched to work with legislators, law enforcement, and activists to assess the threat human trafficking poses to Michigan and develop policy recommendations to promote its exposure and prevention.
In its 2013 Report, the Commission made several important recommendations including: developing a standardized human trafficking victim assessment tool; establishing more dedicated housing facilities for human trafficking victims; increasing availability of legal, medical, and translation services; developing specialized victim-centered, trauma-informed training; enhancing communication networks among service providers and first responders; and implementing the Human Trafficking of Children Protocol.
We are already moving to implement those recommendations by introducing new legislation to strengthen our existing human trafficking laws and develop victim-centered protections. Working together, we are moving full-throttle to crack down on traffickers and give law enforcement better tools to take these predators off the streets.
In addition to bringing human traffickers to justice, it is equally important we commit to providing traumatized victims the support and services they so desperately need to overcome the injustices perpetrated against them.
Legislators and law enforcement can't do this alone. We need your help. The first step is to educate yourself by visiting the human trafficking section of Attorney General Schuette’s website, www.michigan.gov/humantrafficking, to be able to recognize the signs of traffickers and to identify victims. Your tips will help law enforcement bring traffickers to justice.
Please join us and speak up. Talk about human trafficking with your family, friends and neighbors. In recent years, public discussion about the realities of crimes like drunken driving and domestic violence opened the eyes of many Americans and inspired real change.
Michigan is no place for men like “Gruesome,” who exploit and abuse our children. This is a fight worth fighting, and together we can make a difference to end modern day slavery.
The annual Crime Victims Vigil will take place on April 23 at the state Capitol in Lansing. Victims and the families of victims will gather to remember and honor those who have suffered or been lost to crime. We are continuing the fight to take back the power from those who would victimize innocent people, and we esteem the incredible accomplishments of those who have overcome human trafficking and taken back control of their lives.
Bill Schuette is Michigan’s Attorney General.
Senator Tonya Schuitmaker (R-Lawton) represents all of Kalamazoo county plus Paw Paw and Antwerp Townships in Van Buren county.
Represenative Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage) represents the city of Portage as well as the townships of Oshtemo, Prairie Ronde, Schoolcraft and Texas.