By YANG ZHANG
Capital News Service
LANSING – Three years ago, a group of college women was recruited to come from Ukraine to Detroit with promises of jobs as professional dancers, but were forced instead to work in strip clubs and as prostitutes.
They are among an estimated 17,500 foreign nationals who are brought to the country annually for exploitation. The number of U.S. citizens trafficked in the country is even higher, according to Polaris Project, a Washington-based organization that works to prevent human trafficking.
Victim advocates, state officials and legislators are trying to raise awareness about the issue in Michigan.
“It is a problem all over the world and our state is not immune to it,” said Jane White, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University and the founder of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.
White said Michigan, as a border and agricultural state, is especially vulnerable to human trafficking.
“We have six different ways of entering into the country,” she said. “And we have a high demand for agricultural workers.”
Michigan passed a package of laws this year to crack down on such crimes, but Rep. Mary Valentine, D-Norton Shore, said stronger measures are needed.
Anne Pawli, Valentine’s legislative assistant, said, “We want to raise awareness of human trafficking in Michigan and educate legislators about the need for strong legislation.”
Statistics show 80 percent of victims are female and 50 percent are minors.
Most are forced to work as cheap laborers or in the sex trade, White said.
A recent report by the Michigan Women’s Foundation shows an increasing trend in the number of young girls who are sexually exploited.
Bridgette Carr, human trafficking clinic director at the University of Michigan, said victims are in the state’s big cities and small towns, in hotels, restaurants and hair salons.
But she said the chance of rescuing them is “extremely low” because most people aren’t aware of the issue and can’t identify victims.
“Until we acknowledge this reality, we are not able to identify and rescue victims,” Carr said.
The Ukrainian women were rescued. At least one went home and one has a public relations job in Detroit. Nine defendants in the case were sentenced to the federal prison.
The Department of Human Services and local groups offer shelter, food, clothing, counseling and medical treatment for young victims. The department has served about 80 children in the past three years.
The Hope Project, a faith-based nonprofit group in Muskegon, also helps rehabilitate juvenile victims. It’s building a rehabilitation center with a school, facilities for activities and walking and bike trails.
Women at Risk International, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit organization, connects rescued women and children with those who can provide shelter, therapy, child care, education and other services.
Jennifer Roberts, the organization’s executive assistant, said it also tries to identify and rescue victims.
“In Grand Rapids we have helped Homeland Security in the last year uncover one brother with underage girls and several trafficking leads,” she said.
MSU’s White said law enforcement agencies and victim services providers must collaborate to prevent trafficking, prosecute criminals and rescue victims.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.