Austin is proud of its many festivals and events, both for the boost they give our economy and the international attention they attract. But those events can provide an opportunity for unwelcome visitors as well: those engaged in human trafficking.
Last week, in advance of this weekend’s Formula One event – which brings in thousands of monied fans in from all over the world – Austin City Council passed a resolution to create an collaborative initiative to combat human trafficking in the Austin area, with the goal of making it a “slavery-free” city.
The “Human Trafficking Initiative,” put forth by District 8 Council Member Ellen Troxclair, includes some disturbing statistics about trafficking, which it identifies essentially as using “force, fraud or coercion” to compel another person into labor and/or commercial sex acts. According to the resolution, “one in every 11 cases of human trafficking … originated in Texas in 2014” and “more than four out of five counties with populations above 250,000, including Travis County, report that human trafficking is a problem while one in two counties of the same size report that human trafficking arrests are increasing.”
Those numbers, said John Nehme of Austin Allies Against Slavery, the nonprofit that was central to pushing the initiative forward, are probably the “tip of the iceberg.” His group is working with the Governor’s Office and other nonprofits on the Texas Slavery Mapping Project, which he says will bring more robust figures and empirical rigor to the table. In the meantime, efforts at institutional education – such as trainings for juvenile justice officers – indicate that, once people know what to look for, most in those systems indicate that they probably have worked with trafficking survivors.
Nehme is cautious about putting too much emphasis, without more substantiation, on the idea that big events bring an increase in trafficking to Austin, though he does believe “there’s a demand effect there.” Any time commercial sexual services take place alongside an event, he added, there can be an increase in trafficking, which often occurs in that realm. The increase in law enforcement attention “shines a light” on the crime he said, but “if we were to apply the same level of urgency, awareness, and resources all year, we could uncover the same level year-round.”
Nehme points out that addressing human trafficking requires a “robust understanding” of its causes – that it happens at the intersection of a number of other social issues (extreme poverty, institutionalized racism, drug addiction, family fragmentation that causes children to end up homeless, on the streets, and in and out of the foster and juvenile justice systems) – and Austin Allies Against Slavery accordingly coordinates with a wide network of governmental and nonprofit groups to address the problem on all levels.
For individuals who want to help, he said, there are many possibilities for engagement at community level. “You don’t have to quit your day job or become a detective,” he said, to have an impact. Here are some of his suggestions for civilians who want to help end slavery in Austin:
1) Leverage your “unique sphere of influence: speak to other people about this issue, be an active participant in your neighborhood association or neighborhood watch. If you’re passionate about about mentoring youth, help with school action programs. You can leverage your skills, neighborhood, or your job into creating ways to make kids less vulnerable.”
2) Connect with organizations, allies, refugee services, and other groups – such as LifeWorks or Austin Children’s Services – that address some of the problems that contribute to trafficking. Austin Allies Against Slavery and agencies it works with regularly post online or in its newsletters specific items trafficking survivors need and coordinate churches, businesses, rotary clubs, and the like to provide in-kind donations – other connections an individual might be able to leverage.
3) Monetary donations to the Allies or agencies and groups they work with are always needed and always welcome.
4) The Slave-Free City Network is working to coordinate volunteer opportunities and should have those posted in the near future.
Finally, Nehme said, those interested in learning more and hearing from survivor leaders can view photographs by Jana Birchum and writing by Lizzie Jesperson at the Allies Art Exhibition at Art for the People gallery, 1711 South First St. The exhibit lasts through November 15, and there’s an opening night party Oct. 29.
For more information, visit Allies Against Slavery.