What 13-year-old girl wakes up one day and says she wants to be a prostitute when she grows up? That was the question Timea Eva Nagy posed as she addressed the crowd -- a room full of regulatory compliance and anti-money laundering specialists, me included, just last week. I didn't expect the topic of human trafficking to come up at the seminar about financial crime detection, but it was item number one on the day's agenda.
Timea was a victim of sex trafficking at the age of 19. Lured to Canada from her native Hungary with the promise of a nanny job and an exciting future in a new country, she was met at the airport by traffickers, trapped, and forced to live in a motel room as a sex slave. Timea described being held by an invisible chain -- methodical psychological abuse and constant threats -- and how human trafficking victims turn into "zombies," just following orders and going through the motions to survive each dismal day. Timea was fortunate enough to escape after three months, but she spoke of women and children who live this horrendous existence for years and have long forgotten any dream or hope of a better life.
As I listened to Timea's story, I started feeling very naïve and foolish. I've studied -- even taught -- the Bank Secrecy Act and monitored suspicious activity indicating potential financial crime in my profession for years. I read the news every day from various sources and stay active on social media, my phone buzzing now and then with new trends on Twitter. I listen to NPR while I mindlessly apply mascara each morning in the comfort of my own steamy bathroom and the company of our spoiled cat lying on my feet. How could I live in such a bubble? Why did I not really know anything about this subject? Like so many others, I assumed human trafficking was some dark, rare crime hidden deep in the underbelly of civilization. I didn't think it affected many people, and I assumed most victims were in distant countries and under the scrutiny of the U.N. or some sort of global aid organization.
Here I sat, face to face with a victim from not so many years ago, listening to her describe a living nightmare. Timea brought up the fact that we live in a deeply flawed culture -- that the oblivious mentality Americans have about human trafficking is reinforced nearly every time we turn on the TV or see an advertisement. We objectify women and girls -- boys, too -- and the indifference to the value and sanctity of human life is ingrained in widely accepted and celebrated entertainment. Timea used The Bachelor as an example. She described thirty women seeking the approval and adoration of one man, all hopeful for a glorious fairytale ending, all pampered and well-traveled throughout the show. Ultimately, all but one are filmed crying in a posh limo after rejection and returning back home to the hugs and praises of friends and family, sometimes obtaining long-term celebrity status. Timea said she can't think about The Bachelor, and programs like it, without reflecting on her experience being trafficked. Victims are promised the world, lured and tricked and seduced into situations out of their control, and ever so hopeful about the future. However, when reality sets in, instead of going home to admiration and comfort and familiar faces, they're sent away in cabs as someone's merchandise or locked away in dark, hidden rooms with no way of escaping. Even worse, they're often arrested and labeled as prostitutes, cruelly prosecuted for crimes committed for the purpose of their very survival. These are victims -- not criminals. Timea pointed at a photo of a young woman in handcuffs and poignantly stated, "Wipe off her makeup and put her in warm clothes. She's not a prostitute! She's a little girl, and she didn't choose this life."
The International Labour Organization, or ILO, reports staggering statistics on human trafficking. This evil -- modern slavery -- accounts for $150 billion in illegal profits each and every year. There are over 21 million victims worldwide, and 5.5 million of those victims are children. According to Unicef, human trafficking has been reported in all fifty states, and the U.S. is "a source, destination, and transit point for trafficking victims." It's time for us to wake up. This is not a problem deep in the underbelly of civilization. It's going on right under our very noses.
There are people and organizations out there fighting to eradicate human trafficking, and the consistent message is that winning this battle will take a concerted effort with attacks on all fronts. Since Timea's harrowing ordeal, she has trained approximately 10,000 law enforcement personnel and received numerous awards including Canada's Prime Minister's Volunteer Award and a Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal. She pointed out last week that it's often difficult to rely on victims as witnesses to achieve victories in the judicial system, since they are frightened, brainwashed, or simply still concealed in captivity. A big part of catching traffickers is following the money, and that is where financial institutions can assist law enforcement by identifying and reporting the distinct transaction patterns of traffickers and their victims. That $150 billion in illegal profits has to be laundered and introduced to the financial system eventually, and we can catch it if we know how to look for it. Another big part of beating this is creating awareness, and that's why I'm writing this today. I might never meet another victim again, but I'll never forget Timea's impassioned plea for action. It's time to take the blinders off and address this issue, and it's time to shift the way we think and recognize the simple freedoms we take for granted.