FORT MILL TOWNSHIP — The victims can be a neighbor, friend or family member. Human trafficking does not discriminate and exists everywhere.
This is the message that Justice Ministries’ Mark Blackwell shared with more than 30 people during the Agape Community Fellowship meeting Tuesday at the Plaza Fiesta in Fort Mill.
“God put this issue on my heart and I felt I needed to take action against this,” Blackwell said.
Justice Ministries is an organization devoted to finding and rescuing trafficking victims. Volunteers with the organization work with and house victims in the Greater Charlotte area. Charlotte is the No. 1 city for trafficking in North Carolina, Blackwell said in a video he presented at the meeting. The rankings are based on monitoring of hotlines by the Polaris Project, an organization that monitors worldwide trafficking.
The reason, he said, is massage parlors that are fronts for prostitution and strip clubs have proliferated in the Charlotte area. Many are popular spots for traffickers to find their victims.
Justice Ministries works to find these areas and bring action against them.
During the meeting, Agape raised $231 for Justice Ministries. The money will go toward housing victims and building a permanent shelter in Charlotte.
“Rarely does it get shut down,” Blackwell said of the activities that attract traffickers.
Traffickers often find victims online as well, he said.
“The Internet is the new street corner,” Blackwell said.
Human trafficking is the third most profitable industry in the world, worth an estimated $32 billion, Blackwell said. “It’s a lot of money going into it,” he said.
Half of the victims are under the age of 18.
“[Victims] often don’t understand what’s happening,” Blackwell said.
Some victims may end up in the business willingly, he said. Others are not permitted to leave and law enforcement has a difficult time identifying and investigating massage parlors that are actually brothels.
“Parlors are the toughest to crack,” Blackwell said.
He said most of the girls are from other countries coming here looking for different jobs. “Many women stay in it because they don’t know where else to go,” Blackwell said. “You don’t age out of your victim status.”
Blackwell said women may not see themselves as victims or may think of the situation as their fault. Many also receive threats against their family if they attempt to escape.
Trafficking is gaining popularity, as it brings in 10 times the money of drug sales, Blackwell said. “We need stricter penalties,” he said.
Last year, Justice Ministries helped 10 girls, including six trafficking victims. “Their children are also being rescued,” Blackwell said. “Every survivor I know has come to know the Lord.”
Fort Mill resident Deborah Gagliani said she came to the meeting to learn more about the problem.
“[Trafficking] has been in my heart,” she said. “I want to do something to help.”
If 1,000 people donate $30 a month, the basic operations of Justice Ministries would be funded, Blackwell said.
He added that prayer is also crucial to helping victims.
“We need Jesus to fight this fight,” he said. “God didn’t create human trafficking, we did.”