2017-03-09 / News

State Police Want Public To Be Aware of Trafficking, Labor Concerns

By Jacob A. Ball

Employers who hold legal documents, such as passports, that belong to international workers, who keep workers in unsafe housing conditions, or who pay their workers only at the end of the tourist season may be guilty of human trafficking under the law. In the local area, human trafficking, while not common, can take these forms, along with coercion or fraud. Because of the influx of international workers to Mackinac Island and the potential for labor exploitation, it is considered a potential hotspot for human trafficking by victim advocacy groups and law enforcement.

This does not mean that most laborers who come to the Straits area during the summer are being trafficked, but that given the numbers who arrive here to work, there is a high level of concern surrounding human trafficking on and around the Island. Mackinac County Prosecutor Stuart Spencer explained the issue as something that is hard to define, but simple to identify in individual cases.

Withholding legal documents, including passports, poses additional risks for foreign workers who are required by law to carry their documentation at all times, and a lack of wages forces people to fend for themselves in an unfamiliar environment, one where there may also be a language barrier.

Traffickers tend to control their victims through force, fraud, or coercion. Engaging in any of these behaviors may be considered human trafficking. Fraud and coercion are the more likely methods when dealing with forced labor. Fraud usually involves preying on desperate individuals by lying to them about wages or working conditions. With foreigners, fraud can also include promises of obtaining immigration documents when an employer has no intention to do so.

Coercion covers a range of techniques, from creating a climate of fear to destroying or withholding legal documents, including the identification and visas of foreign workers.

Mr. Spencer said federal agencies tend to get involved only when the situations involve a higher volume of victims, thereby leaving many to rely on local police. Poor English proficiency may limit the ability of many foreign workers to seek help from law enforcement, and foreign workers may also be unfamiliar with their rights under the law.

Human trafficking has been made a priority of the Michigan State Police this year. Police want more people to be able to recognize and report the problem. Wednesday, January 18, Community Service Trooper Patrick Janisse of the St. Ignace State Police post outlined the basics of human trafficking to a group of about 15 community members, most of them in government or social services.

Typically, human trafficking involves children or adults forced into sex trafficking or labor.

Signs of human trafficking can include injuries, malnourishment, lack of personal belongings or identification, avoiding eye contact or authority figures, and inability to move around independently. Trooper Janisse asked people to call police if they suspect a trafficking incident.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center reports that more than 70% of all forced labor cases reported from Michigan in 2015 involved foreign nationals. Among all cities in Michigan, the center ranks Mackinac Island sixth in the number of calls received regarding potential human trafficking cases.

Conviction on human trafficking charges can result in a life sentence in prison, up to $50,000 in fines, and may trigger Sex Offender registration depending on the circumstances.

To report a suspected crime, contact the Michigan State Police in St. Ignace at 643-7582.

Sex Trafficking

Although it is not reported in the local community, trafficking of children and adults for sex is a concern for police and public awareness is required to help prevent it.

Solicitation can occur from any source, young or old, man or woman, friend or stranger. According to research, 62% of victims are trafficked by someone they know and trust, with 35% sold into trafficking by their own family; only 3% are, in fact, kidnapped.

The practice thrives in situations that allow for high profits, such as prostitution. Many times traffickers use drug addiction as a means of control. The Mackinac County prosecutor’s office identifies addiction, poverty, and mental health problems all as situations of vulnerability that traffickers may take advantage of in the local community.

Although people like to believe that rural means safe, police say, anywhere there is a vulnerable population, there is someone out there willing to use that vulnerability for gain.

Some rural areas may actually be hotbeds for traffickers due to a lack of resources, and the potential for drug abuse. In addition, strained family relationships can often be used to control a victim who no longer has anywhere else to turn.

Force is a common tactic employed by sex traffickers. This can take many forms, including torture, confinement, and sexual abuse.

Trooper Janisse said that safe Internet use is an important skill to teach children. The Internet has become a common recruiting space for traffickers, and youth should learn proper ways to behave on social media as far as communicating with strangers and posting messages and photographs publicly.

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