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Human Trafficking Isn't An 'Other Problem,' Author Says. It's Happening In The U.S., Too05:35
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Police and forensic officers investigate a lorry in which 39 bodies were discovered in the trailer, as they prepare move the vehicle from the site on October 23, 2019, in Thurrock, England. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Police and forensic officers investigate a lorry in which 39 bodies were discovered in the trailer, as they prepare move the vehicle from the site on October 23, 2019, in Thurrock, England. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Police discovered the bodies of eight women and 31 men in the back of a refrigerated truck in Essex on Wednesday. Most are believed to be Chinese nationals, and four people linked to the case are in custody.

The case has renewed concerns over human trafficking, although the details are not yet known, and have made some people wonder: Could there be a truck full of people driving around the United States right now?

“Absolutely,” says Stephanie Hepburn, journalist and co-author of the book "Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight.” “I fully think that that is happening at this moment.”

Globally, an estimated 40.3 million people are victims of human trafficking, also called modern slavery, according to the International Labour Organization.

For the 39 people found in the U.K., she says it’s too soon to say if they are victims of human trafficking because it’s unclear whether they were being exploited. Authorities have confirmed the people were being transported and that they died, but it’s unknown how they died or what occurred leading up to the tragedy.

Deprivation of freedom for an exploitative purpose is “the crux of human trafficking,” she says, meaning victims are being exploited for a specific purpose such as forced agricultural labor, commercial sexual exploitation or domestic labor.

The International Labour Organization reports 24.9 million human trafficking victims are in forced labor and 15.4 million are in forced marriages.

Even when human trafficking victims agree to preform labor, she says they have their freedom restricted by being denied payment or having their identifying documentation withheld.

Hepburn says these victims are aware of these risks but they’re willing to do it anyway because of one key reason — desperation.

“You have scenarios where certainly people are cognizant that there are some risks, but you have unscrupulous people who are good at conveying opportunity,” she says. “And when people are desperate, opportunity sounds pretty good.”

The fact that the truck was able to get across borders demonstrates a “point of vulnerability” that highlights a need for checkpoints, she says.

People everywhere need to be more aware of the prevalence of human trafficking and not think about it as an “other issue” that is happening in different parts of the world, but not in their own communities, she says.

The solutions to this massive problem need to come at the local level, she says. There needs to be policy that ensures companies are held accountable for every level of their supply chain and ensure vulnerable people are not being harmed.

“It doesn't matter whether you're in the U.K., whether you're in China, whether you're in the United States,” she says. “People are desperate for a better situation. And there are going to be unscrupulous people who step into that space and take advantage.”


Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on October 25, 2019.

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