Last month in Columbia, eight adults in their 20s and early 30s were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy and sex trafficking.
On the same day the 26-count indictments were announced by a U.S. attorney in the state capitol on Jan. 14, the Lowcountry Coalition Against Human Trafficking hosted an event at Hilton Head Lexus in Bluffton that showcased an award-winning documentary on the topic entitled “Not My Life.”
The next day at Christian Renewal Church on the island, the coalition sponsored its fifth annual conference, attended by about 125 people, with a host of speakers from state and national government, healthcare advocates, trafficking survivors, law enforcement, the filmmaker and clergy.
A random coincidence of events on the same day? Not really.
Sex and labor trafficking – what many authorities call modern-day slavery – is emerging as a very real local, regional and national concern.
While there have been no human trafficking arrests in the Hilton Head area to date, the coalition’s primary mission since 2010 has been to help educate and raise awareness of the potential for it occurring in our backyard.
State legislators passed a human trafficking law in 2012, and a task force was established.
“The Hilton Head-Bluffton area has all the draws for human trafficking,” said Mary Jo Riley, coalition board president. “It’s a resort area, it has a major sports event (the Heritage golf tournament), we’re near an interstate highway, we’re near a state border, Georgia, we’ve got military installations, (seasonal workers), and all those things combined make it a perfect hotbed for that activity that draws traffickers.”
No state in this country is immune to this problem, she said. “It’s everywhere. The big thing about human trafficking is that it’s a hidden crime that’s hard to detect,” Riley conceded.
Max Fratoddi, a coalition board member, retired 25-year FBI agent and national security advisor on international human trafficking, also spoke with this reporter at the kickoff event.
“We know it’s around us,” said Fratoddi, who cited arrest incidents in Myrtle Beach, Greenville, Savannah, North Carolina and Florida. “I don’t think it’s a stretch of the imagination too much that we might find it here if we looked a little harder.
“America is both a source country and a destination country,” the Bluffton resident said, believing that the homeless, runaways and orphans are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
“Other than defending my country, I was never exposed to anything that had a more profound effect on me than rescuing women who had been enslaved,” he said. “It’s slavery.
Worldwide, as many as 21 million minors and adults are affected. These people are bought, sold and smuggled into sexual and-or workplace slavery.
The non-profit coalition primarily serves Beaufort County and connects victims to organizations that can help rebuild their lives and reintegrate them into society. It has grown into a widening network of assistance and support programs that involves many organizations from all fabrics in our community.
Though to date there have been no local victims who have sought services, the network is firmly in place and stands ready to serve. A meeting for new volunteers will be held at 5:45 p.m. Feb. 4 at the Bluffton Branch Library for anyone who would like to help.
Robert Bilheimer, the “Not My Life” filmmaker who spent three years making his movie, made it quite clear what his documentary is all about.
“It’s the only film that makes a hand-flick of attempt to describe this issue as a global phenomenon,” said the Academy Award nominee. “The issue is so widespread it’s ubiquitous, and so dangerous and so complicated that you can’t capture it in an hour and 20 minutes, but we made the attempt.”
He hopes “this movie can be a sustainable agent for social change. … Awareness doesn’t guarantee that the human rights movement will see change, but what is guaranteed is that this human rights movement will not lack awareness.”
If you suspect or witness human trafficking, call the national hotline toll-free at 888-373-7888.
Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer living in Bluffton.