The highly anticipated World Games starts in less than six weeks, and it's expected to bring thousands of people from over 100 countries into the Birmingham-metro area. With that kind of influx, sex-trafficking is a concern for those in charge.
More than 3,000 Alabamians are working with The World Games to undergo training on sex trafficking. The training was put together by multiple agencies to ensure anyone who visits our state remains safe.
“Blanket Fort Hope collaborated on this training with a group of partners - Homeland Security, Family Sunshine Center, Alabama Anti-Human Trafficking Alliance within the Attorney General's Office, Children's Aid Society of Alabama, Child Trafficking Solutions Project, Fowler-Davis, Traffckinghope.org, and West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force,” said Alexa Liki-James, the CEO of Blanket Fort Hope.
Liki-James said she is thrilled this kind of education is being offered in Alabama because she sees the problem firsthand every day.
"Blanket Fort Hope is a place of safety for child survivors of human sex trafficking," said Liki-James. "Our mission is to restore hope in the lives of survivors through essential services, compassionate care, and showing others the love of Christ.”
John Tice is just one of the many volunteers who have already completed the sex trafficking training.
“There are 12 different training modules The World Games trained us on, and sex trafficking was one of them," said Tice. "This opened my eyes so much - how to spot traffickers and how to better identify those who are being trafficked. Most importantly, I learned the early steps to report this crime. Anyone can call 1-833-DHS-TIPS to report what they suspect sex trafficking.
“And it wasn’t just talking - they did a great job with a video portraying what would be typical scenarios you might see.
"They also spotlighted a situation with actors of how an actual rescue took place because of someone reporting it. It was such valuable training."
Doug Gilmer, the Resident Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the principal investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, said they are honored to help with the training.
“HSI helped to develop the training provided to World Games staff using material provided by the DHS Blue Campaign and in concert with many of our community partners. HSI has also been integrally involved for the past couple of years in training law enforcement and first responders across Birmingham and the state on human trafficking in advance of The World Games. HSI and its partners have trained thousands of law enforcement officers in Alabama in human trafficking awareness, response, and investigation.” Gilmer said.
1819 News asked Gilmer how many people are sex-trafficked in Alabama each year.
“The honest answer is, we don’t know," said Gilmer. "We know the UN and the State Department estimate about 25 million people are being trafficked globally each year, including both sex and labor trafficking. But trafficking is vastly underreported and we only know about the number of cases that get reported or the number of victims we recover and identify. A study of 2017 data by the University of Alabama identified 1,167 suspected trafficking victims, of which, 665 (or 57%) were minors. This is probably the most recent and accurate data we have on the statewide issue but even so, it is likely a minimum number as it is an underreported crime. Nationally, about 98% of sex trafficking victims are female. The number of male victims of labor trafficking is significantly higher."
Gilmer said one of the big things The World Games volunteers learned in sex trafficking training, is how to spot the crime.
“One of the biggest lessons we stress in training to any group is to forget the stereotypes," said Gilmer. "The media has conditioned us to look at human trafficking through a particular lens. It is not like it is portrayed in the movie Taken nor is it like how it is portrayed in the older police shows like Starsky and Hutch. There is no one stereotype. There are risk factors such as substance abuse, runaway/at-risk/homelessness (especially among youth), mental health issues, and immigration status, that contribute to the likelihood of exploitation but victims can be young, old, of any ethnicity, and from any neighborhood or socio-economic level. Victims may attend college or local private schools. They may have vulnerabilities that can be seen or unseen.
"Some red flags to look out for though, include someone being under the obvious control of another person. Someone who will not make eye contact with others and allows someone to speak on their behalf. Have they dressed appropriately for the environment or situation they are in? Are they reluctant to discuss physical injuries or medical history? Are they unable or unwilling to discuss where they have been? Do they know where they are now? Are they paranoid, confused, or disoriented? Do they have possession of their own identity, travel, or immigration documents? Are they traveling with others who may seem out of place? Are they frequenting places that are suspicious or out of place?”
And the reason Birmingham is a hot spot for sex trafficking?
“Birmingham is not unlike any other large city," Gilmer said. "We do have a confluence of factors, however, that create an environment where this activity flourishes. First, it is easily accessible. While trafficking is not a crime involving transportation (a person can be trafficked without ever leaving home) it is often transient as traffickers may move their victims from city to city on a circuit. Birmingham is a well known, established circuit destination. We have I-65, 59, 20, and 22 each converging in Birmingham as well as other major U.S. and state highways. Atlanta is two hours away. Nashville and Memphis are about the same. New Orleans and even Dallas are an easy day’s drive. Birmingham also has money, specifically, a lot of disposable cash used to purchase commercial sex."
Gilmer added that some trafficking victims his agency has come into contact with have confirmed that the Magic City is a place people in the underground, illegal industry know about.
"We have been told by trafficking victims we have encountered, that Birmingham is a favorite destination because the sex buyers (aka Johns) are nice and they don’t get beat up or robbed as often," said Gilmer.
“Large events bring large numbers of people and large amounts of cash into a community thereby creating an opportunity for increased exploitation. Human trafficking is motivated by financial gain for those who facilitate the crime and the victims of human trafficking are vulnerable to exploitation. Whether it’s a sporting event, a large convention, or any other large-scale event, an environment is created by the influx of people and cash that feed the crime.”
And for something as significant as The World Games, you'd better believe these traffickers have a game plan.
“For large-scale events, trafficking organizations, not already in the immediate area, will be studying the area well in advance of the event," said Gilmer. "Remember, they are focused on making money and hopefully not getting caught.
"...Remember though, we don’t have to bring in traffickers or trafficking victims to Birmingham to create a trafficking problem. Traffickers and trafficking organizations are already here in Birmingham and have been for a long time."
And, Gilmer emphasized, that this type of training in Alabama is significant and residents need to know it’s all about protecting people!
“This is the first training of its kind for World Games staff so we broke new ground," said Gilmer. "We have been told this training will continue for future events.”
The World Games will be held from July 7 - July 17.
Again, the number to report suspected sex trafficking crimes is 1-833-DHS-TIPS.
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