Project FIGHT

BOONE — When people hear the phrase “human trafficking” they may think of the movie “Taken” with Liam Neeson, which depicts a father trying to find his daughter after she was kidnapped in a foreign country.

While that type of situation does happen, it is not the narrative for the majority of human trafficking cases in North Carolina, said Chatty Majoni — the Spanish services coordinator at OASIS in Boone. According to Project FIGHT (Freeing Individuals Gripped by Human Trafficking), more than 4,000 cases of human trafficking have been reported in the Carolinas since 2007.

“Often times people don’t think that it’s happening here,” said Danyelle Smith. “Human trafficking happens everywhere.”

Project FIGHT is an initiative of the Salvation Army in the Carolinas that started in 2011. It has grown from operating out of one office in Raleigh to regional locations in Charlotte, Jacksonville, Asheville, Greenville and now Boone — serving all 100 NC counties. Smith serves as the case manager in Project FIGHT’s Boone office that opened in February 2019, and is located at 136 Furman Road.

According to Smith, from April to December of last year, she served 21 survivors of human trafficking — 75 percent of them were from Western North Carolina. This included victims from Avery, Ashe, Watauga, Alleghany, Wilkes and Caldwell counties, she said.

Human trafficking takes place across all demographics, Smith said. Likewise, a trafficker can be from any demographic as well.

What is human trafficking?

Smith explained that human trafficking encompasses both sex trafficking and labor trafficking. The Administration for Children and Families’ Office on Trafficking in Persons defines sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision obtaining, patronizing or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act. In these cases, the sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion or the person induced to perform such act is a minor child.

When it comes to sex trafficking, more often than not the perpetrator is not a stranger the victim doesn’t know. It’s typically the opposite, and often begins with some type of relationship, Smith said.

“It is typically somebody who becomes like a boyfriend,” Smith said. “Then it can quickly turn into them asking (the victim) to have commercial sex for a myriad of things — substances, shelter or ‘because I love you, don’t you want to help me out?’ A lot of people don’t self identify because it started with what they identified as an intimate relationship.”

The trafficker may enter the relationship with an intention that is unknown to the victim. Majoni said a trafficker would rarely approach a victim and tell them they are a “pimp,” but would rather create a false narrative that they would care for and love the victim.

Both Smith and Majoni also discussed a trend in what they called “familial trafficking,” which is when a family would traffic their children or potentially other members like cousins to provide money for substances or shelter. Majoni added that she is familiar with a recent instance of white supremacy familial trafficking, with the trafficking restricted to the white supremacist group.

Substance use is a fairly common component in human trafficking cases in the area, Smith said. The cases also often intersect with other components such as domestic violence and sexual assault. This would add to the reasons why someone may not self-identify as a human trafficking victim, Majoni said.

While the majority of Smith’s clients were victims of sex trafficking, she has worked with those who were labor trafficked. The Administration for Children and Families’ Office on Trafficking in Persons explains that labor trafficking is when a person is recruited, harbored, transported or obtained for labor or services. This type of trafficking is done so through force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.

Smith explained that within an agriculture industry, there may be migrant farm workers. Some of the migrant farm workers are in the U.S. here on H-2A visas, which allows workers to be employed by a specific farm. Smith said there is often a middle person called a farm labor contractor who would help connect the worker with an H-2A visa to a farm owner. It is during that process that Smith said exploitation can occur.

“Often times it will first start off with a fraudulent promise of when an individual is in their home country and has this job opportunity saying, ‘You’re going to be paid this much and your housing will be covered,’” Smith said. “Once (the worker) makes it to the U.S., (their) documents are withheld, they’re not paid what they were promised and the living conditions are not to standard. They may be met with threats of calling (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and being deported.”

With agricultural industries in the area like Christmas trees and pumpkins, Smith said there’s the potential that people could be exploited.

The Administration for Children and Families’ Office on Trafficking in Persons states that human trafficking and human smuggling are two separate crimes. Human trafficking is when a person does not consent to the action and does not require movement of a person from one place to another — meaning the victimization can take place transnationally or domestically. With human smuggling, individuals consent to their illegal transport across a national border, according to the office.

While Majoni is the Spanish services coordinator for OASIS, she said this doesn’t necessarily mean the trafficking clients she works with are all Spanish speaking. Rather, she had human trafficking training and agreed to work with victims as well as OASIS clients who were Spanish speaking.

However, as the Spanish services coordinator, if a trafficking victim is an immigrant survivor, Majoni said she can connect them with the Battered Immigrant Project through Legal Aid North Carolina. She can then help them navigate different visa programs if the victim wants to gain permission to stay in the country legally.

Human trafficking response

Smith said that when she started as the Boone case manager, she helped to establish a High Country Rapid Response Team that primarily focuses on Ashe, Avery and Watauga counties. The multi-disciplinary team meets quarterly and includes representatives from local law enforcement agencies, OASIS, Daymark, legal aid services and other organizations.

When a client comes into contact with Smith, she said she provides comprehensive case management by helping them achieve goals they have set for themselves. She uses her connections from the response team to help link them to resources for obtaining documentations (like birth certificates or identification), food, housing, clothing, mental health services, employment as well as transportation to an emergency shelter.

The Boone Project FIGHT location does not have its own emergency shelter yet, Smith said. She said there’s very few human trafficking specific shelters in the state, therefore Project FIGHT relies heavily on shelters like what is provided through OASIS. The organization can also help relocate individuals out of the area as well.

Smith and Majoni said Boone’s Project FIGHT and OASIS work hand-in-hand when in comes to case management to provide a holistic approach for a client. Majoni said it is a “game changer” to have Smith and Project FIGHT located in Boone.

“It wasn’t always a thing for domestic violence shelters to take trafficking victims and to know how that differs from every other victim,” Majoni said. “The N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence is doing a lot of training and helping our domestic violence agencies figure out how to best serve our trafficking survivors. But having this partnership with Danyelle has given us a head start in being able to work with the folks that come into our shelter.”

For more information on OASIS and Project FIGHT services, email Majoni at spanish@oasisinc.org or Smith at danyelle.smith@uss.salvationarmy.org. For immediate assistance or to make a tip, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-800-373-7888 or text “help” or “info” to 233733. Information on Project FIGHT can be found at www.salvationarmycarolinas.org/projectfight.

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