Bhumika Patel said human trafficking is more of a problem in the U.S., and likely in local communities, than many people realize.
Patel, a regional coalition specialist with End Slavery Cincinnati, offered the Highland County Drug Abuse Coalition an overview of human trafficking on Thursday at the North High Business Center, and urged those in attendance to be aware of its presence locally.
According to Patel, human trafficking often involves traffickers forcing or coercing individuals into carrying out commercial sex acts, such as prostitution and pornography, and in some cases forced labor.
Patel said traffickers are not always strangers to their victims, and often use their own social circles to recruit individuals by deception or threats.
Exploitation of weaknesses is more common than kidnapping, Patel said, and traffickers regularly use addiction, poverty and language and culture barriers to gain leverage against their victims.
“The trafficker’s goal is to make the victim feel like they don’t have options,” Patel said.
Currently, Patel said, an estimated 20.9 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, and in the U.S., 70 to 80 percent of human trafficking cases involve commercial sex acts.
According to Patel, the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Task Force identified nearly 400 victims of human trafficking from 2014-2015, although that only counts those who were reported by law enforcement agencies.
Patel said the signs of human trafficking are often similar to the signs of domestic violence or abuse, including visible injuries, a fearful demeanor, or even the actual presence of the trafficker, who may not allow the victim to speak or do things for themselves.
In a victim, the psychological impact of human trafficking often manifests itself as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, Patel said, and many victims show those symptoms for years.
Patel said her organization exists to raise awareness of human trafficking and provide for the needs of human trafficking victims, including protection, shelter, food, medical care and legal counsel.
Patel urged those in attendance to report suspected human trafficking by calling the Greater Cincinnati Human Trafficking hotline at 513-800-1863.
Heather Gibson, president of the drug abuse prevention coalition, told The Times-Gazette after the meeting that she invited Patel to speak to the coalition after being made aware of a human trafficking case in Highland County two months ago.
“I feel this area is very vulnerable to this sort of thing,” Gibson said. “I think it happens more often than people think.”
Gibson said poverty and drug abuse create an environment where human trafficking can thrive unabated.
According to its website, End Slavery Cincinnati is approaching its fifth year as an anti-human trafficking coalition serving the greater Cincinnati area. Its overall goal is to increase victim identification through public awareness and assist in the coordination of services for victims of human trafficking.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.