The coronavirus pandemic has impacted every sector of society, including the human trafficking crisis in Maryland. January is recognized as Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and in recognition of such, local advocates are highlighting how the global pandemic is making vulnerable populations and more susceptible to human trafficking and what is being done to address these issues. The Human Trafficking Prevention Project (HTPP) is a partnership between the University of Baltimore School of Law and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) with the central focus of raising awareness and lending essential services to human trafficking victims and survivors.
One of the biggest challenges facing the human trafficking awareness social justice movement is that there isn’t precise data on the crisis throughout the country. But what experts are certain of is the adverse impact that the economic downturn of COVID-19 pandemic has had on individuals who are more susceptible to being trafficked.
“What we do know about human trafficking is we know what makes people vulnerable,” said Jessica Emerson, director of the HTPP at the UB School of Law. “The challenge with the pandemic is that we know that all of those things that make people vulnerable— things like not being able to obtain housing, not being able to obtain gainful employment, struggling with addiction, immigration matters — all of those things have worsened since the pandemic came to be.”
In hindsight, there will be “significant increases in numbers” once researchers start collecting that data, Emerson added. The Prevention Project defines human trafficking as “the trade of human beings through force, fraud, and/or coercion for the purpose of exploitation for labor, sexual purposes, or organs.” Trafficked persons can be adults or children, male and female.
The pandemic has also forced MVLS and UB School of Law to conduct advocacy efforts differently as they have expanded their online presence through an outreach campaign that offers a variety of helpful resources for human trafficking survivors and victims. The HTPP from MVLS and the UB School of Law has served hundreds of human trafficking survivors to help expunge or vacate their convictions, which is a start to putting them on the path of self-sufficiency.
Heather Heiman, Human Trafficking Prevention Project Manager at MVLS, along with her colleague Emerson and a host of other advocates throughout Maryland, have joined the nationwide push for criminal record relief laws legislation that allows victims to have convictions cleared.
“For survivors, the added rub, if you will, is that they’re carrying around a criminal record that is directly linked to acts they were forced to commit by their trafficker,” Emerson said. “If that’s not the definition of lack of justice or unjust, I don’t really know what is. And so that’s why the project emerged in 2015 at the University of Baltimore School of Law, really focusing on criminal record relief.”
According to UB School of Law website, the HTPP provides pro-bono legal services to individuals with criminal records primarily stemming from involvement in the commercial sex industry. Most HTPP clients exist at the intersection of race, class, and gender discrimination, the website notes. For more information about MVLS, visit https://mvlslaw.org/ht/.
Unfortunately for many trafficking victims, criminal convictions consequently puts limitations on “their ability to secure safe, stable housing, gainful employment, or government benefits.” One of Emerson’s goals for 2021 is to advocate for an expansion of services under the relatively new statewide criminal record relief laws. Additionally, she is enthusiastic about the changes in data collection as the new year unfolds. Likewise, Heiman mused about some of HTPP’s goals this year.
“We’re quite excited about this new outreach campaign that we’ve launched. We really think that we have great materials and resources that we can use to connect with agencies,” Heiman said, discussing the organization’s mission as it embarks on what may be a challenging year. “We are trying to rise to the challenge [of there being] a huge increase in needs for free legal services. There are going to be so many people that are going to be facing things like surmounting debt related to the economic fall-off from the pandemic.”
A good deal of work related to human trafficking prevention is left up to legal experts, law enforcement officials, etc., but if any community member wants to contribute to the social justice movement, Emerson suggests a few actionable items. “If you want to reduce vulnerability to trafficking, get involved in work around people experiencing homelessness, around people experiencing addiction, around anti-racist work,” said Emerson, a professor at the UB law school.
“Those things to me are the most crucial things that the average citizen in Baltimore City can do. Because when you address the root causes of trafficking, you impact anti-trafficking work for the better.”