Volunteers with a nonprofit that assists in the rescue of human trafficking and sex trafficking victims are hosting an event Thursday in Vancouver to raise awareness about the issue locally.
Amanda Silagy said that she and other local volunteers with Operation Underground Railroad planned the community event, set to begin at 7 p.m. at McMenamins on the Columbia, 1801 S.E. Columbia River Drive.
“Rise Up For Children” will be a walk from the restaurant, under the Interstate 5 Bridge and back. The location was chosen because much of the trafficking here and in Pacific Coast states is carried out along I-5, according to law enforcement.
The World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, proclaimed by the United Nations, is Thursday. This year’s theme focuses on the first responders to human trafficking, people working in various sectors who identify, support, counsel and seek justice for victims.
“During the COVID-19 crisis, the essential role of first responders has become even more important. Particularly as the restrictions imposed by the pandemic have made their work even more difficult. Still, their contribution is often overlooked and unrecognized,” the U.N. said.
It’s a sensitive time to host the event, Silagy recognized. Participants are being asked to follow all guidelines imposed by health officials to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That includes wearing masks, not congregating in large groups and sticking with members of your household during the walk, she said.
Operation Underground Railroad was founded in 2013 and primarily focuses on efforts to stop the trafficking of children. It works with law enforcement to prevent such crimes, as well as capture and prosecute perpetrators. According to the organization, human trafficking is now the third most profitable business in organized crime, behind only the sale of drugs and firearms; 2 million children are being exploited as a result.
The local group of volunteers carries out the nonprofit’s work in Clark County and in the Portland metro area.
There were 11,500 human trafficking cases reported last year to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which maintains one of the most extensive data sets on the issue. In Washington, 272 cases were reported, according to the data.
What constitutes sex trafficking is nuanced. In general, sex trafficking happens when someone uses force, fraud or coercion to cause a commercial sex act with an adult or causes a minor to commit a commercial sex act.
Silagy said that she believes many people are aware of the issue and can relate to its impacts, but as a mother, the overwhelming statistics makes her all the more passionate about education on the topic.
“Once more people hear about it and open their eyes to what’s going on, they’ll realize that it’s happening here in the Portland metro area, which is a huge hub for trafficking,” she said.
Advocates often say that Portland is the second-largest city for forced child prostitution in the country, after Las Vegas.