When the Olympics ascended on Rio this summer, they did so with unmatched fanfare and excitement for the nation’s second most populous city. As athletes, media, and fans arrived for the sixteen-day event, the city enjoyed a healthy boost in commerce, tourism, and media attention alike. But underneath the hype and hysteria permeating the city and its games was a quieter, darker industry looking to profit from the arrival of the Olympics and its visiting competitors and fans—the industry of human trafficking.
Human trafficking—the buying and selling of people for forced labor and sexual activity—is on the rise worldwide, with an estimated 27 million people enslaved around the world today. The industry is active in a reported 167 countries—roughly 85% of the nations across the globe. Generating $150.2 billion per year, the human trafficking industry is the second largest global organized crime. And while the industry operates regularly under the radar around the world, what’s more disturbing is the reported increase in trafficking activity in major cities surrounding the arrival of major events—like the 2016 Olympics in Rio. While it’s difficult to classify the increase numerically because of the industry’s fairly undercover operation, government officials have declared major events like the World Cup, the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and others like them to be the largest human trafficking events in their country at the time. Such a staggering yet increase leaves local activists and officials in host cities like Rio asking, “What do we do?”
An Evening On Bourbon Street
That’s exactly the question Kay Bennett found herself asking in early 2013. As director of the Baptist Friendship House, a transitional housing program for homeless women and children in the city of New Orleans, Bennett regularly came face to face with the horrors confronting the neglected, violated, and abused in her area. But with the arrival of Super Bowl XLVII to New Orleans that year, Bennett found herself facing a new opponent in her city—that of human trafficking.
“The Super Bowl is commonly known as the single largest incidence of trafficking in the country each year and suddenly it was in our city,” Bennett explains. “Rather than bury our heads in the sand until it was over, our team saw it as an opportunity to step in and partner with local organizations and law enforcement to do some very specific outreach.”
The kind of outreach that put Bennett in the midst of the madness on Bourbon Street in the late hours of the night following the game that February evening in 2013. There she found herself face to face with the reality of the statistics she’d long heard. After following several men through the side door of what appeared to be a typical shop, Bennett and her team were shocked at what they found.
“We saw a room full of men, all lined up and wrapped around the room as if they were in line at a theme park,” Bennett recalls. “They were waiting to take a turn with one of the women who were being sold for sex that night.”
Bennett and her team did what they could in the moment. They reported the incident to authorities and left rescue resources nearby for the women inside, praying for their safety as they were forced to leave. While such a horrifying and discouraging experience might dissuade some from continued efforts, for Bennett her experience that night on Bourbon Street and others like it throughout that Super Bowl weekend only fueled her fire to fight for the rescue and restoration of those being trafficked in and out of her city.
“Our eyes were already more opened than others because of the work we do at Baptist Friendship House, but what we saw during the Super Bowl that year really spurred our efforts and outreach.”
In addition to late night outreach efforts that year, Bennett and her team partnered with local law enforcement during the Super Bowl to simply raise awareness in the city prior to the event. They created booklets on the signs and signals to look for in spotting incidences of human trafficking and distributed them at places where people might come in contact with victims—taxi cabs, hotels, hospitals and bars. They hosted trainings for hotel employees, police officers, nurses, doctors, and taxi cab drivers to educate them on how to spot and help those enslaved to human trafficking in their midst prior to the Super Bowl. They also created Free + Nola, a task force based in New Orleans designed to combat trafficking. In preparation for the Super Bowl, the task force made simple bars of soap engraved with the phone number to the human trafficking hotline and left them with hotel managers to leave in their rooms where trafficked women might find it. While no one was rescued from this particular effort during the Super Bowl, Bennett knows of at least two women who made the call and were rescued from the industry after finding the soap in a city’s hotel long after the game.
“That’s the kind of thing I think those in the fight against trafficking have to remember about efforts during big events like the Super Bowl or the Olympics,” Bennett says. “You may not see the results you hoped and prayed for during the event, but the foundation is being laid for greater awareness while the event is there. The Super Bowl gave us the opportunity to train and educate people on what to look for in cases of human trafficking. It may not have stopped anything that week, but it gave us the foothold to do a lot of continued work once it was gone.”
Bennett has seen an incredible increase in the efforts to fight trafficking in New Orleans and around the United States in the three years since the Super Bowl was in her city. Locally, she gives a lecture on human trafficking each semester to nursing students at Louisiana State University. Additionally she has worked with professors at Loyola University to change laws in the state of Louisiana, bringing their government grade on trafficking laws from a C to an A in just three years. The Baptist Friendship House now partners with the FBI, Homeland Security, and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center to meet with, interview, and assess women in suspected incidences of trafficking in the state of Louisiana.
“We have the opportunity to sit down and talk to these women and meet their needs for rescue,” Bennett says. “Some want to go home, some need long term treatment, some need to be taken to safe houses—we help them do all of that with their sustained safety and restoration being our top priority.”
It’s opportunities like this that have made Bennett and her team at Baptist Friendship House some of the leaders in the fight against human trafficking around the country. And Bennett will be the first to say that this work came about because of the efforts that began that night on Bourbon Street three years ago.
Back to Brazil
Hopefully, the same will be said down the road for Brazil and the efforts to fight human trafficking that spurred from this year’s games in Rio. Prior to the games, a 2014 report on trafficking by the United States government classified Brazil as a “large source and destination” for forced labor and trafficking. While the nation has previously been slow to respond to human trafficking in the past, the Olympics brought increased law enforcement activity and campaigns for awareness. Local law enforcement placed posters around the city to warn against trafficking and made a number of sweeps to shut down dozens of instances of trafficking leading up to the Olympics.
Additionally, organizations already at work against trafficking in the country stepped up their work in preparation for the Olympics. Meninadanca, a Brazilian nonprofit that works with at risk girls in communities along what is commonly known as “exploitation highway” in Brazil, worked hard to be present during the games. Working on BR-116, a highway running just outside Olympic village and commonly playing host to instances of children being sold or kidnapped into prostitution, Meninadanca placed pink ribbons along the 2,819 miles of roadway to raise awareness of the Pink House they have established as refuge for victims. The hope is that, just as they were for Bennett and her team during the Super Bowl, these efforts will multiply in the city of Rio and the nation of Brazil to see rescue and restoration brought to victims of trafficking.
In the meantime, Bennett calls any and all who are educated on the realities of human trafficking to not wait for a major event to arrive in their city to raise awareness. She urges them to start now.
“Once you know, you can’t claim ignorance to the issue,” Bennett says. “You can however take action. Pray. Talk about the issue. Educate yourself and others around you. Contact your local law enforcement. Put it on social media. Take advantage of the resources you have around you to be the voice that might make a difference in the life of someone who is vulnerable in your community. We have the chance to give something to the people trapped in situations of trafficking; we have a voice.”
For more information on human trafficking, check out:
Statistics compiled from www.enditmovement.com, www.state.gov, and www.hiddentearsproject.org.