Governor Bob McDonnell on Friday called on state officials to create a committee tasked with bringing a more comprehensive and coordinated approach to the growing problem of human trafficking in Virginia.
The Governor was speaking at the Omni Richmond Hotel at the close of a day-and-a-half conference on human trafficking. The Governor’s Summit on Human Trafficking brought together around 200 representatives from state and local government as well as advocacy groups to help draw attention to the growing and wide-spread problem.
Human trafficking is defined in the Virginia Code as a crime involving the "recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purposes of commercial sex acts or labor services through the use of force, fraud or coercion." Trafficking is not to be confused with "human smuggling," because a smuggled person is a willing participant; whereas a trafficked person is not.
After the Governor's speech on Friday, state officials were asked about statistics on the number of human trafficking crimes in Virginia. While the facts were not readily available at the conference, it is evident that the crime has taken on a life of its own in the state.
Human trafficking is a growing industry in Virginia
According to the United Nations data supports the fact that human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world, and a $40 billion-a-year-industry. Statistics are difficult to come by because it is a hidden crime, and while hundreds of thousands of people are trafficked each year in this country, exactly how they enter the country and how they get to Virginia is still a mystery.
Virginia law enforcement agencies have been working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other law enforcement agencies, and while none of them could provide specific data on ongoing cases, they did say they were increasingly concerned about the connections traffickers have with certain Latino gangs, especially MS-13.
One of the major obstacles in prosecuting traffickers, as well as identifying victims of trafficking is the way Virginia looks at the victims. Police officers and social workers in Virginia often misidentify them as criminals. Minors convicted of prostitution often are incarcerated, and their pimps are usually hit with a fine.
On the other hand, federal law treats all children engaged in prostitution as victims, including those between 15 to 17-years of age. In Virginia, state law assumes that children between 15 and 17 are able to consent to commercial sex acts and are criminals. This may soon change because of the Governors call for a more comprehensive and coordinated approach to human trafficking.
Are there any actual statistics on human trafficking?
The answer is no, and this is because of the covert nature of the crime. Particularly lacking is the number of American citizens trafficked within the U.S.. World-wide, estimates on human trafficking put the figure at 27 million people. In any given year, there are approximately 14,500 - 17,500 foreign nationals brought into the United States by traffickers.
About 70 percent of these victims are forced into the sex trade, and many are forced to become literal slaves to families using them as domestic workers. It is also becoming clear that the Northern Virginia area, and in particular the I-95 corridor is seeing the fastest growing number of cases involving trafficking.
State and federal officials say the proximity to international airports as well as a spill-over from Maryland and Washington D.C., where anti-trafficking laws are stronger and easier to enforce, has added to the problem. This is one of McDonnell's concerns, and the reason for the task force.