Human trafficking is usually not like the movies. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines trafficking as “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some kind of labor or sexual act.” Traffickers look for vulnerabilities in their victims, such as language barriers or fear of law enforcement to commit this crime, which is why refugees are a prime target.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Lutheran Services Carolinas created a new program to assist foreign-born victims of trafficking in North and South Carolina. The Trafficking Victim Assistance Program (TVAP) provides comprehensive case management services to foreign-born survivors of human trafficking in the Raleigh-Durham area and the Midlands of South Carolina. The program also recently expanded to serve the Wilmington and Myrtle Beach areas. LSC is the only TVAP provider in South Carolina.
The program is a partnership with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“I think there is a different perception of what trafficking really is. I think people have this idea that it’s kidnapping young girls and it is people that you don’t know,” Rebecca Gibson, LSC’s TVAP program team lead, said, adding that traffickers often know their victims, who may be family members of friends of the family.
For some young women, Gibson said, a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship might go bad and turn into a trafficking situation in which a susceptible young woman is groomed and then taken advantage of.
LSC has been providing TVAP services on a small scale for several years, but when the pandemic hit and the number of refugees coming into the country slowed, Gibson and her team saw an opportunity to expand and create a full program.
“Our refugee resettlement and Transitional Foster Care for Unaccompanied Children teammates weren’t super busy because they didn’t have a lot of arrivals coming in,” Gibson said. “So we were able to use their expertise.”
Gibson said because many victims are undocumented, they are less likely to report trafficking, which could have happened in the United States, on their journey here, or prior to their journey.
Being undocumented puts victims in a more precarious situation because they are afraid to approach authorities and may not completely understand their rights here in the United States, Gibson said.
“A lot of traffickers will threaten them and say, ‘I’m going to turn you into immigration. I’m going to get you deported,’ and so a lot of people stay in bad situations, especially with labor trafficking.”
Out of fear, individuals may remain in dangerous conditions or in situations where they aren’t getting fairly compensated, Gibson said.
Since the program began, LSC has assisted 35 victims. Services provided include, but are not limited to, assistance with housing, safety planning, basic needs, health care, education, the legal system, employment, and language, as well as assistance in accessing HHS Certification to attain access to further resources and assistance to the same extent as refugees.
LSC receives referrals for the program through law enforcement, immigration attorneys, or clients who contact them directly.
“Human trafficking, also called modern slavery, has no place in our world. It is a grave crime and human rights abuse,” LSC’s Director of Refugee and Immigrant Services Bedrija Jazic said. “I will continue to look for more opportunities to expand our Survivors Assistance Program with staff whose time will solely be dedicated to serve survivors of human trafficking across the Carolinas.”
For more information on the Trafficking Victim Assistance Program visit https://lscarolinas.net/survivors-assistance-program/.