Beaufort County group commemorates National Human Trafficking Awareness Day on Jan. 11 -- and all year

astice@islandpacket.comJanuary 6, 2012 

  • The Lowcountry Coalition Against Human Trafficking will commemorate National Human Trafficking Awareness Day from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Jan. 11 at Remy's Bar & Grill on Hilton Head Island. The event is open to the public and will include a brief presentation, appetizers and a cash bar.

Contrary to popular belief, human trafficking isn't a crime that happens only to those far from home, Janice Dyer says.

The president of the two-year-old Lowcountry Coalition Against Human Trafficking is on a mission to tell people that the employee at the nail salon, the waitress, the hotel maid or a local student could be victims of the shadowy crime.

The organization will commemorate National Human Trafficking Awareness Day on Jan. 11 with a presentation on Hilton Head Island and an appearance at the Technical College of the Lowcountry campus.

Dyer said human trafficking falls into one of three categories -- sexual trafficking, forced labor and domestic servitude. Foreign-born people aren't the only victims; American citizens also can be trafficked in their own country, she said.

The public can identify trafficking victims by recognizing the signs. Those include people who live and work in the same place, who are transported to and from work; who are not free to come and go as they please; or who do not have access to their identification documents or other belongings.

"Their traffickers just don't want them out of their sight," Dyer said.

There are no pending human trafficking cases in the 14th Judicial Circuit, according to solicitor Duffie Stone. However, local law enforcement and prosecutors rarely make human trafficking cases -- most are investigated by federal authorities because many rings cross state lines, Stone said.

In 2010, an illegal immigrant living in Beaufort, Zilen Wang, pled guilty in federal court to aiding and abetting the transporting of illegal immigrants to work at Jade Garden restaurants.

Authorities said the restaurant owners -- Wang and five other Chinese nationals in Beaufort County -- negotiated to hire waitresses and dishwashers smuggled into the U.S. from China and Latin America. The workers were housed in a trailer in Burton and paid little.

Capt. Jim Bukoffsky, who leads a team of Immigration and Customs Enforcement-trained deputies at the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, said in another instance, investigators suspected human trafficking but the suspects disappeared as soon as the investigation began.

Because victims often fear retribution from their traffickers, it's a challenge to get them to come forward or testify, he said.

Because of the efforts of the Lowcountry Coalition Against Human Trafficking, S.C. Criminal Justice Academy cadets now receive mandatory education on how to spot and investigate the crime, Bukoffsky said.

Coalition member Daniel Brownstein said the group is working with area nonprofits to figure out how to provide services to victims of human trafficking -- no easy feat because of the lack of shelters nearby, he said.

"Given that Beaufort County's primary industry is tourism, which relies heavily on labor, it would be naive to think that this is a problem that only occurs elsewhere," Brownstein wrote in an email. "If you think about it, how do you know that the maid at the hotel is being treated fairly or that the woman at the nail salon isn't being forced to pay off a debt for coming to the United States?"

Residents who suspect human trafficking can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-3737-888.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/lcblotter.

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