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By Kaitlyn Massie

The United States abolished slavery in 1865. Then why is human trafficking the second most profitable criminal enterprise and the fastest growing?

A strong and aggressive criminal justice response is part of the solution. However, law enforcement alone cannot win this battle. This injustice can be overcome by spreading awareness and prevention.

Human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Every year millions of men, women and children are smuggled into countries resulting in a $32 billion per year industry. Nearly 1 in 5 victims of slavery is a child and there are an estimated 60,100 people trapped in slavery in the United States right now, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC).

Law enforcement is essential to convict those who are guilty of human trafficking. It is necessary in punishing the perpetrators and seeking justice for these victims.

“Law enforcement personnel may come into contact with victims of human trafficking in many situations. Whether responding law enforcement agents identify victims during a crisis call, routine traffic stop, or during a long-term investigation, they are in a position to protect and assist victims of trafficking,” NHTRC states.

The Trafficking in Persons report found that federal law enforcement prosecuted more cases in 2014 than in previous years. In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security, through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) opened more than 1,000 cases—many with the help of the public through tips about suspected human trafficking—resulting in 816 convictions in federal cases with a nexus to trafficking, and identified over 330 trafficking victims, according to the Department of State.

Even with these convictions, simply relying on law enforcement to address slavery on its own is to ask the impossible.

Typically a law enforcement response takes place after a crime has occurred.  After that 13-year-old girl is targeted by a trafficker. After she is taken from her family to be sold and abused.

Awareness is what can save that little girl.

“Allocating resources to raise awareness among vulnerable groups, and reducing their exposure, should be a greater priority rather than attempting to repair the damage after the fact, with law enforcement efforts that usually amount to too little too late,” Alina Alcantara of Columbia University said.

Awareness is the first step in preventing human trafficking. When people know what it is and how traffickers lure people into slavery, there will be fewer victims and soon none.

Learning the red flags that may indicate human trafficking can save your or someone else’s life. There are many organizations that are put in place to help someone know the particular signs and provide ways to report them, such as the International Rescue Committee, the Polaris Project, and Free the Slaves.

Knowledge is power.

Eliminating slavery is a combination of law enforcement and preventive actions, not a choice between both.