Human trafficking occurs in every county in New Jersey, reaching all ethnic groups and people of all socioeconomic backgrounds — with New Jersey serving as a major hub.
This phenomenon has drawn the attention of the local Jewish community.
On Friday, March 30, a summit to organize a battle against human trafficking is being convened by the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest and Central NJ with 25 local organizations — some but not all Jewish — signed on as cosponsors.
Over the last few months, said CRC director Melanie Gorelick, a number of committee members representing a variety of local organizations — among them local sections of National Council of Jewish Women, the League of Women Voters, and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey — came to her with concerns about human trafficking.
“It’s an emerging issue for us,” Gorelick said. “Trafficking is taking place in our own community. And New Jersey has a large population that is being trafficked because it is a major port and it connects with I-95 that reaches all the way down to Florida, so people can be moved quickly.”
Since everyone who approached her “wanted to share information and resources,” said Gorelick, the CRC decided to form an umbrella group to address the issue.
According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, human trafficking occurs when a person is induced to perform labor or a commercial sex act through force, fraud, or coercion. Any person under age 18 who performs a commercial sex act, however, is considered a victim of human trafficking, regardless of whether force, fraud, or coercion was present.
While certain populations, like undocumented migrants and runaway and homeless youth, may be especially vulnerable, human trafficking victims can come from a range of backgrounds, some from middle- and upper-class families, according to Kate Keisel-Stagnone, project coordinator in the NJ office of the Polaris Project, an organization established in 2002 in Washington, DC, to fight human trafficking.
“People from every county in New Jersey are exploited,” she said. “People from the Jewish community are being trafficked. It affects everyone,” said Keisel-Stagnone, who will be a presenter at the summit.
(Polaris opened a satellite office in Newark in 2010 to provide services directly to victims; in addition to its Washington offices, it also has a location in Tokyo.)
In fact, one of the presenters scheduled to appear at the summit is Jewish and a survivor of trafficking.
But the Jewish community is now part of the solution. The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey is a funder of Polaris, and Keisel-Stagnone believes interfaith support will be key to combating trafficking. “The goal is to create awareness. If we can build and raise awareness we can end demand,” she said. There is also a need for people to volunteer to work with survivors and provide support.
Asked about some of the biggest challenges she faces in her work, Keisel-Stagnone said, “Access to transitional housing is the number one challenge in New Jersey. Not far behind are reliable transport and funding to help reintegrate victims into society and help them find employment in the economic sector.”
The summit will feature two survivors of trafficking and representatives from the Department of Homeland Security. Discussions will center on how community collaboration can combat trafficking, and Keisel-Stagnone and other Polaris representatives will offer resources for community action. Gorelick said the summit will also provide an opportunity to “build coalitions with other groups that care about human rights.”