The endless opportunities that are harming Alabama

By Hunter McCoy
Staff Writer

TUSCALOOSA – According to experts, Alabama has its own vulnerabilities to human trafficking, specifically sex and labor trafficking. 

The state has a combination of poverty, low education levels, broken homes and drug addiction that makes it appealing to traffickers. 

Valerie Trull, the former business analyst and research coordinator for the Alabama Uniform Human Trafficking Initiative and instructor at The University of Alabama, says because of the endless possibilities in Alabama, there are also endless opportunities for traffickers who seek to do business in the state.

“Alabama is a very diverse state as far as what sort of opportunities exist, which is a great thing, she says. “But with that diversity comes more opportunities for traffickers to take advantage of the situation.”

One of the abilities that traffickers have is the ability to take advantage. They take advantage of their victims, victims’ vulnerabilities, their location and their own personal ‘power.’

Trull says two of the biggest vulnerabilities for an individual are coming from a broken home and drug addiction. 

“Any environment that creates instability or increases vulnerability opens up to greater risk factors for trafficking,” she says. “It all comes down to the vulnerabilities – in the environment, the family structure, the individual. Traffickers look for any vulnerability they can exploit.”

Because of that unique diversity of Alabama and the vulnerabilities of an individual, there are unfortunately multiple forms of human trafficking that exists in the state. However, the most prominent forms are sex and labor trafficking, says Dr. Brittany Gilmer, human trafficking researcher.

Gilmer, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at The University of Alabama, says sex trafficking is the most talked about form, but labor trafficking is the state’s biggest issue.

She says when it comes to sex trafficking, it is slightly easier for law enforcement to intervene. On the other hand, labor trafficking is considered more complex. The complexity stems from who is involved.

“It gets much stickier for law enforcement to go after it, because the people involved in it are usually people of power, or people with money.”

Generally, people who are labor traffickers tend to be people higher up in society. This allows for politics to get involved and that makes it more difficult for law enforcement, she says.

Trull says labor trafficking occurs mainly in agricultural areas and the beach, because of the hospitality industry – such as hotels. 

“All of these industries utilize a high number of immigrants, which is a status that traffickers know how to use against someone,” she says. “From limited language accessibility making it hard for victims to know where to go for help, to withholding documents like visas.”

According to The Alabama Uniform Human Trafficking Initiative, “… sex trafficking victims in Alabama tend to be domestic, from Alabama and surrounding states, and victims of labor trafficking (or a combination of labor and sex trafficking) are often foreign nationals.”

Despite labor trafficking being one of the biggest issues in the state, Gilmer says another issue that representatives from not only Alabama – but Mississippi – speak on is the frequent occurrence of familial trafficking.

The states are fighting two of the biggest vulnerabilities for human trafficking – poverty and low education levels, she says.

“Poor families that need money will traffic their children, sisters or their spouse,” Gilmer says. 

Similar to labor trafficking, familial trafficking is difficult to identify due to certain indicators being misidentified – or unidentified – by professionals, according to the report. 

Alabama legislators are actively fighting human trafficking in the state, but are their efforts helping to emphasize the reality of it?

One effort made is the Human Trafficking Safe Harbor Act, which was passed in 2016 in the Alabama House of Representatives. 

According to WBRC, “the Human Trafficking Safe Harbor Act would prevent minors involved in prostitution from being prosecuted in adult court …”

“Safe harbor laws such as the Alabama legislation view minors involved in prostitution as sexually exploited having been forced or coerced.”

Despite the safe harbor law, many Alabama natives are still unaware of the realities behind human trafficking. Some have a false perception that anyone involved in trafficking is automatically a prostitute, according to Gilmer.

She says a lot of the false perceptions come from the movies and television shows such as Taken. Aside from people believing that trafficked individuals are prostitutes, she says a lot of people have the idea that human trafficking starts when an individual is kidnapped and thrown into a white van with force.  

However, she emphasizes that those types of situations rarely occur, if they occur at all. 

According to Stop the Traffik, “just because someone hasn’t been taken by force, isn’t physically chained or hasn’t been trafficked for sex, it doesn’t mean they are not a victim of exploitation.” 

Trull says the rare scenario that an individual is just forced into a van is holding Alabama natives back from understanding the reality of human trafficking.

“It taints jury pools against the victims because the real stories don’t sound like what people believe trafficking to be,” she says. “There is plenty of over-hyped fear of trafficking in Alabama, but very little recognition of what the real risks are and ways to combat them.”

Out of the two false perceptions – white van scenario and all trafficked individuals are prostitutes – which is the biggest misrepresentation, or myth, that experts on the subject constantly have to debunk?

Gilmer says the biggest misrepresentation, in the South, of human trafficking is that the individual is a prostitute. 

She says the thought that a trafficked individual is, or was, a prostitute is simply derived from the deep religious roots that exist in the South.

“In the Deep South, sex work and prostitution are already issues that are seen as social blemishes,” Gilmer says. “There’s already this type of demonization, or negative stereotypes of sex work and prostitutes.”

“A lot of people already assume that people being trafficked must be sex workers or prostitutes, but we know that is not the case.”

“I think a lot of that has to do with the deep religious roots down here and the way that different deviances are explained in religion. I think that is one of the biggest drivers in misrepresentation is this misunderstanding that victims of human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking, are not necessarily prostitutes or sex workers.”

Because of the public’s perception of trafficked individuals, one of Gilmer’s hopes is that the public’s perception will shift.

“I hope that we really are able to start shifting the public’s perspective on trafficking victims,” she says. “I hope the public starts to see trafficking victims, not as people that were either asking for it or put themselves in that position to let it happen, but as individuals who are often victims before they are trafficking victims.”