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‘If we keep our eyes closed, that doesn’t help’: Trafficking prevalent in West Michigan says nonprofit

Posted at 6:34 PM, Jan 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-11 18:56:08-05

WYOMING, Mich. — Women At Risk International on 44th Street is filled with all kinds of goods and items: scarves, earrings, necklaces, blouses, aprons, purses and soaps. All of it goes to support survivors of human trafficking, both domestically and abroad. It’s one of the ways they combat the crime, which they say is the fastest growing in the world.

“Human slavery is active in this culture more than anytime in history,” said Shelley Marinus with WAR International.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there were 295 cases of human trafficking in the state of Michigan in 2020, along with 845 contacts, which includes phone calls, text messages and online chats.

Marinus said West Michigan has a lot of hot spots because we’re on a trucking line.

“We have high traffic. We are near the Great Lakes. We are near the Canadian border. So, moving people about is easy. So, that’s where a lot of trafficking happens,” Marinus said. “I once asked a fifth-grade class, ‘What is trafficking?’ And they said, ‘Driving your car down the road,’ and they knew that. And I said, ‘Well, it is moving something from one place to another and this is against someone’s will. It’s human slavery.’”

Marinus said the pandemic and lockdowns made the crisis worse, especially for children.

READ MORE: Human trafficking advocates fear a surge in cases amid pandemic

“Kids were sequestered at home doing remote learning,” she said. “Over 90 percent of trafficking begins online. And, quote-unquote 'friendships' are made and promises are made and they’re empty promises with only threat and fear and danger ahead.”

And traffickers, she said, are always looking for vulnerabilities.

“So, if someone has a vulnerability, a trafficker will pick up on that especially if someone is homeless,” Marinus said. “Within 48 hours, a young person is approached by a trafficker.”

Marinus said one of the best ways to combat human trafficking is to first be aware of it. People should be looking for unusual and strange behavior especially from children.

“It could be in your neighborhood. It could be watching someone’s behavior,” Marinus said. “If it changes, if someone becomes more secretive, if a young person starts getting gifts or high-priced items and they don’t have an explanation for how they got those things, those can all be clues.”

She also said ultimately it’s best to report it to police and not second-guess your gut if you see something questionable.

“Education and awareness is really, really important because if we keep our eyes closed, that doesn’t help,” she said. “We need to keep our eyes and ears open and report to our local police of things that we see that may be suspicious.”

***National Human Trafficking Hotline: Call 1 (888) 373-7888 (TTY: 711) or text 233733***

READ MORE: New training helps healthcare workers identify sex trafficking victims

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