Morgan Weibel Answers Six Questions About Human Trafficking
On the 28th floor of a hotel in the Baltimore Harbor. Inside a strip club on a busy Baltimore street. At a truck stop along Interstate-95.
Human trafficking is an emerging crime in Baltimore.
It’s a heartbreaking reality that attorneys and frontline service providers at Tahirih Baltimore encounter as they help human trafficking survivors achieve justice, safety, and stability in the wake of this devastating human rights abuse.
The city is a human trafficking hotspot partly because of its proximity to I-95 and major east coast cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. In 2014, there were 135 trafficking cases reported in Maryland — the 10th highest number reported in the United States.
Weibel serves as the Co-Chair to the Victims Services Subcommittee of the Maryland Human Trafficking Force.
Q: You have served on the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force since 2011. What do you see as its major strength?
A: Collaboration is one of the major strengths of the Task Force. Open and honest dialogue informs strategies on how to better identify gaps in services and resources so we can help victims get back on their feet after this devastating crime. People in Baltimore across all industries and sectors are approaching the problem of human trafficking with open hearts, but limited resources. Because our Task Force is unfunded, we are challenged to find innovative, low-cost solutions to trafficking in Maryland.
Q: Can you give us an example of an innovative project the Task Force has in the works?
A: One idea that I love is an “Attorney of the Day Schedule,” where trained immigration attorneys would rotate being on-call to contact newly freed or discovered trafficking survivors within 24 hours. This is such a critical window to the future of a survivor. If there isn’t an attorney that law enforcement can call immediately when they encounter trafficking victims, people often disappear off law enforcement’s radar and fall through the cracks in services. They need information about available legal and service options. The attorney of the day would always keep survivors’ welfare at the heart of the call.
Q: What is one facet of the issue of human trafficking that you’ve found surprising in your work as an advocate for survivors?
A: I’m often surprised at the willful blindness to the realities of human trafficking. We see a lot of victim blaming, and words have power! In the movement to end human trafficking, this is a very important concept. Five to 10 years ago we weren’t talking about ‘sex trafficking victims,’ we were talking about ‘prostitutes.’ Once you start to get under the hood and look at all the manipulation that’s used to control a survivor, it’s a no-brainer that anyone would feel trapped. Now that our understanding of human trafficking is evolving and our language is shifting to reflect that knowledge, law enforcement officers are better equipped to identify and help victims, and more traffickers are being prosecuted in Maryland.
Q: How do traffickers gain and maintain control over their victims?
A: Perpetrators often prey on people who are orphaned, impoverished, or in an otherwise vulnerable situation, using a range of manipulation and abuse to exert a sense of ownership over the person. One of the most sinister aspects of traffickers’ psychology is the concept that you can possess or own a human being. It’s cold and dehumanizing and leads to unthinkable psychological, sexual, and physical violence against trafficking victims, which are disproportionately women and girls.
Q: Tell us about an aspect of human trafficking that you believe merits more attention.
A: There tends to be a lot of media coverage on sex trafficking, but what we’re finding is that there’s a lot of overlap in abuse with that and labor trafficking. A lot of cases start out as labor trafficking and then transition into a sex trafficking situation, especially in more established networks such as gang-based and narcotics networks.
If you think you own a human being, it’s only a slight step further to feel you are entitled to control over that person’s body.
Q: Human trafficking is an entrenched and pervasive problem around the world. What inspires you to continue your work?
A: I find inspiration in our clients’ ability to transform. When you meet with a human trafficking victim right after they’ve escaped or been recovered, there’s a real sense of loss of agency. There’s the palpable sense that this person has not had regular chances to just be a human being. It’s very striking. As you work with a client, however, they start to take back what was taken from them by their trafficker. Even something as small as saying “I’m cold, can we turn off the air conditioner,” is a huge step in regaining their stability and independence. The faith and possibilities for transformation are so poignant, it’s very rewarding to see.
Q: What is one myth you’d like to bust about human trafficking survivors?
A: These are not weak or needy people, literally all of us could find ourselves entrapped in these scenarios given the right circumstances.
Survivors do not take one form, one race, or one image.
It could easily be you or me in that situation.