January is national Human Trafficking Awareness Month. For the Tampa area, human trafficking stands as a unique moral challenge.
Behind our downtown development, attractive beaches and bastions of history and local culture lies a disturbing world of sexual exploitation, rape and slavery. Approximately 50,000 individuals are annually trafficked into the United States, and Florida is the third-highest ranked state for human trafficking, with the Tampa Bay area being a top Florida destination.
Human trafficking refers to trade in humans, traditionally for the purpose of sexual slavery or forced labor. Trafficking is a profitable industry, at about $32 billion annually in international trade. For the human trader, the commodity can be renewed again and again, at a substantial and continued profit.
And this lucrative trade continues to stain our community.
Numerous sex-related businesses often serve as easy covers for human trafficking.
This is a challenge which should not go unchallenged. All sectors of our community should play a pivotal role in this.
Local government has a strong role to play.
Just recently, Tampa City Council looked at sensible measures to combat the so-called “Asian massage parlors,” where women typically live on sight and are confined and compelled to provide sex seven days a week. Tampa and Hillsborough police should be empowered to go after the demand of illegal sexual services and promote the idea that when men frequent these massage parlors, they aid institutions that, quite often, engage in slavery and sexual exploitation.
Additionally, we would be well served to create a Tampa Citizens Commission on Human Trafficking, to unite the best minds from our civic, business and religious communities for bright, new perspectives.
Our church communities should have an increased role in combating trafficking. Churches should fund ministries, such as private safe houses, where victims of human trafficking can get back on their feet.
Safe houses are often tragically underfunded. Just one year after the passage of Florida’s Safe Harbor Act, which sought to fund safe houses through increased fines on prostitution Johns, just $9,000 in fines were collected to fund these efforts.
No church or house of worship in the Tampa area should let one Sunday pass without aggressive efforts to stamp the many faces of human trafficking on the minds of congregants.
Human trafficking is a crisis that implicates many of our identities. However, aside from my identity as a Christian, it is my identity as an American that most moves me on this issue. Many victims of trafficking are immigrants who were brought here with the promise and honor of being an American. But instead of living a dream called America, they live a daily nightmare called slavery, all done in our midst.
Instead of working hard to become part of the American family, they find themselves in a world of forced labor and rape. What good is our patriotism if not as a call to action to help these huddled masses of victims of labor and sexual exploitation? No good American should tolerate this kind of exploitation in our midst.
All sectors of our great Tampa community should play an aggressive role in stamping out this great modern evil, which preys on too many of our community’s most vulnerable members.
Luis E. Viera is a Tampa attorney.