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Aaron Calderon, Malik McKenzie, and Sabel Bong, of SUNY Canton, prepare to march down Main Street. Photo: David Sommerstein
Aaron Calderon, Malik McKenzie, and Sabel Bong, of SUNY Canton, prepare to march down Main Street. Photo: David Sommerstein

How human trafficking happens all around us

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According to a study by Hofstra University, more than 11,000 people in New York State have been victims of human trafficking since 2000. They may have been sex workers, or forcibly employed at restaurants or factories or on farms.

They're among the estimated 27 million people who are victims of human trafficking worldwide.

Several organizations this week are drawing attention to what's often called modern-day slavery. The state Department of Labor has announced a new partnership with businesses to expose illegal labor trafficking.

A handful of students from SUNY Canton held a march yesterday to raise awareness of the issue.

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It’s not easy to get college students out on a grey, frigid, windy day for anything. Just four members of the International Students Activist Organization of SUNY Canton stand in front of the post office at noon Tuesday.

"We’re gonna walk back to campus. Ideally with a big turnout, you’re gonna draw attention to yourself," said Aaron Calderon from New York City, who is studying multimedia design at SUNY Canton. He says the low turnout’s not surprising, because human trafficking seems hidden and far away, "It’s something that nobody really knows about. It’s done in the dark. People have no clue what’s going on and how to detect it and how to combat it, so that’s what we’re out here to do today."

Calderon’s wearing a black t-shirt that says “sold” in bold white letters. His friend, Malik McKenzie, who also organized the march, is wearing one that says “seduced.” MacKenzie says he hopes the T-shirts will prompt people to ask questions about human trafficking, "The reason why a lot of people don’t see it is because when you bring up human trafficking, they assume it’s kidnapping somebody and taking them halfway across the world to make them work for you. But it can be something as small as having a woman work at a strip club"

It's everything from child labor, child slavery, prostitution, child soldiers, and it's the third most profitable illegal crime in the world.
Calderon adds, "It’s everything from child labor, child slavery, prostitution, child soldiers, and it’s the third most profitable illegal crime in the world. After drugs and guns that is the third one."

The students say their advisor Sabel Bong, a counselor at SUNY Canton, got them interested in this issue. Bong says we may not know it, but the North Country’s international borders are one conduit to move people illegally, "They’re smuggled and trafficked, through the reservation and through these porous areas, into New York City, Atlanta, San Francisco, Florida, so we are kind of the traffic point between a lot of activities. It happens around us, but we don’t know."

One example of labor trafficking may be right here in North Country, with the illegal employment of Hispanic workers on dairy farms. Most undocumented farm laborers are on the books and paid the prevailing industry wage. But immigrant advocates say some are taken advantage of. They’re denied paychecks or access to health care, or threatened with deportation. Hispanic dairy workers have testified to paying thousands of dollars to be packed unsafely into a van and trafficked from the border with Mexico to northern New York to find work.

Tomorrow at SUNY Potsdam, the Worker Justice Center of New York is convening a North Country Human Trafficking Task Force made up of law enforcement officials and social service providers.

SUNY Canton student Malik MacKenzie says hearing stories of young people forced into illegal activity made him want to do something, "I shouldn’t just sit down and say, it’s out of sight, out of mind, that it’s not happening to me or anybody I know so I shouldn’t care. The world may not be a perfect place, but we can all do what we can to make it at least better than it is now, as a collective whole."

Tonight, Gabriel Bol Deng will speak and show a documentary he made. Deng fought in Sudan’s civil war and is one of the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan.” He’s now living as a settled refugee in Syracuse. The event starts at 6 pm in SUNY Canton’s Kingston Theater.

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