Human trafficking is a global and profitable business, trading in the exploitation of vulnerable populations. While the full scope of human trafficking is difficult to establish, experts put the number of victims at 27 million worldwide — children and adults coerced into commercial sex and forced into labor. They're sold for sex in motels and makeshift brothels, and forced to work in homes, factories and farms under inhumane conditions. They endure physical violence and psychological trauma.
Traffickers prey on those susceptible to exploitation: homeless and runaway youth, undocumented immigrants, children in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. The fact of their victims' dire circumstances helps traffickers keep them invisible, and many victims see no hope for escape or a fulfilling life after enslavement.
The SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Survivors opened this month in College Park to sow that seed of hope. The center is one of few university-based programs in the U.S. to combine comprehensive services for victims of human trafficking with research and advocacy aimed at ending it.
The SAFE Center is a program of MPowering the State, a partnership established four years ago between the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The center was founded and is led by Susan Esserman, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson who directs the law firm's pro bono program on behalf of trafficking victims and has represented a number of survivors in Prince George's County.
The center's location in Prince George's County is important because the county is a major locus of human trafficking. According to the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force, Maryland is both a pass-through state and a destination for traffickers, who use the highways to connect victims to populous communities within the state and to major cities up and down the East Coast. With those highways come rest stops, truck stops and bus stations, where trafficking is unconscionably common. In Prince George's County, the problem is even greater. The county has several communities with significant populations of foreign-born residents — many without papers — which makes them vulnerable to coercion and threats.
Providing comprehensive services for trafficking victims is a SAFE Center priority, and the center fills a critical services gap in Prince George's County. With in-house resources and collaboration with partners, the center will provide case management, legal and counseling services, basic medical and mental health care, and economic empowerment programs — education, job training, financial counseling — which are crucial to restoring survivors' independence and helping them reintegrate into our communities.
This intensive work with survivors will inform our research, and that research will, in turn, improve the services we provide. This is where the multidisciplinary expertise of our faculty is a key strength, as researchers from both universities will come together to expand the scholarship on human trafficking, which is now in its infancy. Our students will become the next generation of trafficking experts and survivor advocates.
Maryland has a robust advocacy community. The SAFE Center will partner with the Prince George's County, Montgomery County and Maryland human trafficking task forces — as well as local service providers, shelters, law enforcement, federal, state and local agencies, and survivors themselves — to share best practices and make services more accessible.
The Maryland General Assembly has been responsive to the growing problem of human trafficking. Last year, legislators created a working group to examine how to best implement safe harbor laws that protect sex-trafficked youth from being arrested and prosecuted for prostitution, instead diverting them to survivor services programs or the child welfare system. We look forward to the governor and the legislature taking up these recommendations to protect exploited youth and bring their traffickers to justice.
We also support efforts to expand vacatur laws, which allow states to vacate convictions for trafficking survivors when their crimes were committed as a part of their victimization. While Maryland law currently allows prostitution convictions to be vacated, other nonviolent misdemeanors are not eligible for vacatur, nor are victims of labor trafficking included in the law. Misdemeanor convictions often hinder survivors' ability to find jobs, loans and affordable housing.
Victims of human trafficking live in the shadows. But Maryland advocates are bringing them out into the light. The Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force helped 217 survivors in 2013. One year later, that number jumped to 396, half of them children. The SAFE Center is privileged to join this fight — to help many more survivors begin new lives of dignity, freed from the oppression and trauma of human trafficking.