Alexandra Zimmer

The discovery of the bodies of 31 men and eight women in a refrigerated container being hauled by a truck into the UK raises questions of human smuggling and blurs the line between illegal labor and modern-day slavery. 

The bodies were discovered by staff of the East of England Ambulance Service on Oct. 23 in Grays, Essex. At this time, the Essex police have arrested the driver of the truck, a Northern Ireland man facing 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist illegal immigration. All of the victims were initially believed to be Chinese, but 20 families from the same region of Vietnam have contacted the Essex police believing their friends and family may be amongst the dead. Vietnamese authorities have reached out to the Essex police to offer their assistance in the investigation.

The authorities have not put together the whole puzzle of this tragedy at this time, but it has once again ignited conversation about human trafficking and illegal labor. The two issues seem different as night and day — the former a brutal victimization committed against vulnerable people and the latter a criminal activity with little sympathy. The uncertainty of what lead to the deaths of the 39 victims found frozen in that truck last Wednesday makes the distinction harder to find. 

Initially it seems like a clear-cut case of human smuggling, which the Department of Homeland Security considers the movement of a person with disregard for immigration laws but with the consent of the parties involved. However, human smuggling can easily turn into human trafficking through debt bondage, coercion, and forceful exploitation. Smugglers confiscate passports and force people to work in particular areas of labor for long hours and little pay to repay the debt owed for transportation. Many people receive jobs in nail salons, sweatshops, or cannabis farms. Some are forced into prostitution or sex trafficking.

The issue has roots closer to home than most people acknowledge. Human trafficking can be occurring in our own community.  The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 55,000 individuals are trafficked into the United States every year, mostly from Mexico and the Philippines. The National Human Trafficking Hotline, which receives on average 150 calls a day, lists Florida as one of the states with the most human trafficking reports in the country. Polk County Sheriff’s Office has conducted multiple human trafficking operations to arrest suspects manipulating people into prositutiton resulting in hundreds of arrests.

Human trafficking is often thought of as an issue to big for any one person to be able to help. The reality is human trafficking can and likely is happening in our own backyards. But there are ways we, as individuals, can fight and prevent it. The United States Department of State suggests that informed consumerism, volunteering with organizations that provide services for human trafficking survivors, and learning indicators that someone may be a victim of human trafficking can help combat human trafficking in our communities. It is our responsibility to be alert as to what we are doing that may contribute to these issues and take action to prevent it.

Visit polarisproject.org for more information on human trafficking and how you can help fight it.

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