By Markella Heather Georgiou
*Graphic Content Warning*
Murdered on film. A survivor of sex trafficking voiced that as a child they were forced to be the subject of child sex abuse films. A screenshot of one film in particular had over 1 million online views. In that film, their co- subject was a female child trafficked from Central America. Both children were horrendously sexually exploited. The Latina child was murdered on camera, in what is referred to as a “snuff film”.
In a 2023 anti sex trafficking training I attended, it was stated that children are being sold for sex in broad daylight with no pants on. No, this wasn’t happening in some remote, third world country, it was here in NYC, on the streets of the Bronx.
85,000 migrant children were reported missing as America yawned and returned to scrolling their social media feeds. With no one to protect them, unaccompanied children represent potential child trafficking victims.
What is going on? Current US policy incentivizes the use of “coyotes” and smugglers to facilitate migration to the US. Migrants know that when children are present, policy protections are in place that will likely result in successful entry into the US. Some migrants seem to perceive the use of children as a sort of currency or visa for entry under US policy protections. Rates of human trafficking have increased 300% from 2008 to 2019. Referrals of unaccompanied children to the US have skyrocketed from 15, 000 kids in 2020 to a staggering 128,000+ kids in 2022.
What is happening to these kids? Should we be content with the answer that former Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) Robert Carey gives when he says “most of these children were released to the care of a parent or close relative. The conclusion that they were “lost” stems in large part from their failure to respond to a follow-up phone call from an unknown phone number.”
Should we further investigate the Grand Jury report that stated “others are coerced into prostitution or sexual slavery; some are recycled to be used as human visas by criminal organizations’ some are consigned to relatives who funnel them into sweatshops to pay off the debt accumulated by their trek to this country; some flee their sponsors and return to their country of origin; some are abandoned by their so-called families and become wards of the dependency system, the criminal justice system, or disappear altogether. Meanwhile ORR’s efforts… appear fully focused on maximizing the number of children they can process.”
It seems that speed is the priority and not the safety and well-being of children. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra stated in regards to discharging migrant children from the system, “If Henry Ford had seen this in his plants, he would have never become famous and rich,” Becerra told staff during a meeting last summer in a recording. “This is not the way you do an assembly line.” Yet another government ‘warp speed’ project that ignores human rights.
Should we look closer at what Tara Lee Rodas recently testified at the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Integrity, Security and Enforcement? “Today, children will work overnight shifts at slaughterhouses, factories, restaurants to pay their debts to smugglers and traffickers. Today, children will be sold for sex… Today, children will call a hotline to report they are being abused, neglected, and trafficked. For nearly a decade, unaccompanied children have been suffering in the shadows.”
Does the economic success of the US now depend on child exploitation? Ms. Rodas illustrates how migrant children have been a component of the labor force for nearly a decade. As a society, we have the capacity to explore labor trafficking through labor laws and data from government agencies who regulate workplace conditions and policies. Labor trafficking is visible and trackable.
However, what is not readily visible is what is going on behind closed doors. What is happening in the creation of child sex abuse films and photos like the survivor described above? Why are there over 322 million files of child sex abuse film and photos on the internet? Who are these children? Who provides care for them after they are horrifically abused?
“The medical evidence points to high levels of violence… Without safe and legal alternatives, migrants are at the mercy of human trafficking networks and criminal organisations that prey on the most vulnerable people.”
The issue of child exploitation is largely ignored and made invisible. However, because an issue is intentionally made invisible, doesn’t mean it does not exist. Most of us believe that slavery ended in the US with the thirteenth amendment. But did slavery really end? Did the desire for control and subjugation end with the blooming of modernity or did it merely shapeshift and evolve into a more covert operation, growing and strengthening behind a carefully constructed curtain that shrouds its hideousness from the public?
How is it possible, with the US’s tremendous resources; criminal analysts, computer forensic investigators, enormous budgets, human resources including 240,000 Homeland Security Employees; that a multi-billion dollar industry of “child pornography” is still in full operation in the US? At the same time, we have record numbers of vulnerable unaccompanied children entering the country, often times never to be seen again. The flourishing “child porn” industry is evidence that this curtain of invisibility exists. But invisibility is not the only issue.
Ignoring is another issue. How can we fix a problem if we can’t even bear to look at the problem? The truth is that some people may need to turn a blind eye to the horrors of child exploitation because of a sensitive emotional state, psychological difficulty with the topic or triggers of past abuse. Still others ignore because they just don’t care, it doesn’t pertain to them. We must consider the more ominous category of ignoring with intention. In other words, ignoring as a form of protecting the issue and making it invisible because one is a beneficiary of its use, either financial, sexual or otherwise.
Those of us who are able, we need to unite and expose what is being made invisible and make a call to action to prevent exploitation. While it is constructive and admirable to advocate for policy change that would discourage unaccompanied child migration, if policy truly could fix the problem of child exploitation then wouldn’t that have been accomplished long ago? It’s time to make this problem visible, look at it and work to fix it.