Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry, but still one of the best-kept secrets in the world. One local business owner is trying to eliminate the secrecy in the Great Lakes Bay Region.
Human trafficking is defined as a former of modern-day slavery. Victims of human trafficking are in bondage through force, fraud or coercion, according to the Michigan Department of Attorney General. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reports indicate 383 cases were reported in Michigan in 2018.
Though words like abolition and slavery seem archaic and as though they don’t have a place in the 21st Century, for Julia Ross and an organization known as A21 they are very familiar. Ross, co-owner of Harless + Hugh in downtown Bay City, is joining a world-wide initiative to put an end to slavery and human trafficking. Ross is hosting a Walk for Freedom on Oct. 19 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Harless + Hugh, 1003 Washington Ave.
The local walk is part of a movement that got its start in California about 10 years ago. Abolishing Slavery in the 21st Century (A21) is an organization started by Australian activist and evangelist Christine Caine. It is made up of people who call themselves “new abolitionists.” The walks for freedom are the group’s way of spreading information and raising awareness that human trafficking is a growing industry and its victims come from all walks of life.
Ross said she doesn’t know anyone directly impacted by human trafficking, nor has she heard of it happening locally, but learning that slavery still exists she knew she had to get involved. But the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reports trafficking affects every community in the state. The more Ross learns about modern-day slavery, the more she wants to make a difference.
“It’s the one thing where I really feel that these people do not have a voice and it almost feels like it gets brushed under the rug,” she said. “It just feels like no one is really fighting for the victims.”
Ross first learned the startling statistics around the slave trade when she met Caine while Ross was studying in Sydney during college. Caine was one of her advising professors. When she returned to the U.S., Ross heard Caine started the abolitionist organization in California. Ross was intrigued and wanted to learn more.
“I couldn’t wrap my head around, like how is this happening, how is this something that is existing today and is not being talked about?” Ross said one of the problems is people don't talk about trafficking. Many believe that it can't happen in a small community such as Bay City.
Since she started planning the Walk for Freedom, Ross said she’s heard often “that can’t happen to me,” but after reading the stories of the women and children who have been enslaved she knows that is naïve thinking.
“I’ve traveled around the world. It could absolutely happen to me,” Ross said. “Women, men, children – they’re being put into situations that I’m sure some of them would never have dreamed they would have been in.”
Ross wants to educate people about what to look for as part of her effort to make a difference. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there are a number of indications of sex or labor trafficking. A few of the visible signs that someone is possibly a victim of human trafficking include:
- An individual who has no control over his or her own money
- An individual who appears fearful, anxious or submissive
- Malnourishment and inappropriate clothing for the weather
- Evidence of injuries that were not properly treated
Ross said being aware of people and surroundings is as important as knowing that human trafficking isn’t something that happens somewhere else.
“It’s everybody’s responsibility to do their due diligence and find out what’s happening in the world. It’s just not talked about enough so people aren’t aware that it’s happening outside of these big events, or along the border in Mexico, when really it can happen anywhere.”
Ross hosted a registration event to kick-off the awareness campaign in late July and will host another event Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. at Harless & Hugh, 1003 Washington Avenue. Details will be posted to the Harless + Hugh Facebook page as they develop. At the September event, Ross said she plans to answer questions and give people insight into what human trafficking looks like.
Ahead of the October walk, Ross is also registering people to join her in the effort. Her goal is to have upwards of 300 people walk locally in support of Caine’s vision that “When a lot of people do a little, it adds up and makes a difference.”
Details on the Bay City Walk for Freedom and registration can be found on the A21 website.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline offers resources and help for victims and those who suspect there is someone needing help 24 hours a day.