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Heidi Heitkamp

HEIDI HEITKAMP: Ending human trafficking, from N.D. to Nigeria

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WASHINGTON — Last month, hundreds of young girls in Nigeria were doing what North Dakota children do every day: sitting in their classroom, learning the skills necessary to move forward in life. Tragically, more than 300 of them were then kidnapped, with terrorists threatening to sell them to other terrible individuals who would use them for sex or labor.

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All Americans, and everyone in the world, should be outraged. This tragedy shines a bright light on some of the most despicable acts that still occur on our planet: trafficking humans for labor or sex.

Sadly, these crimes are also happening in our own state — and the terrible occurrences of it in North Dakota are quickly growing.

In the past few months, we have seen arrests for human trafficking throughout North Dakota. Eleven men were charged with offering up children for sex in Dickinson. Two individuals were arrested for prostituting immigrants out of a massage parlor in Minot. Two men were charged with the attempted sex trafficking of children in the oil patch. The list goes on.

These horrifying crimes, both abroad and in North Dakota, reinforce that all of us need to work together to put a stop to them. In the U.S., human traffickers prey upon the most vulnerable members of our society. Statistics show that on average, children are 13 years old when they are forced to become victims of sex trafficking.

Around the world, it is estimated that more than 20 million individuals are trafficked for sex or labor — including thousands in the United States.

North Dakota’s law enforcement has been working hard to crack down on these crimes. But all of us need to do our part to shine a spotlight on this problem and stop it.

I’ve been working in Congress to combat human trafficking, listening to victims, advocates and law enforcement. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and I introduced a bill that would go a long way to root out this behavior by cracking down on sex trafficking.

Our bipartisan bill would make sure minors who are sold into sex trafficking rings are treated as victims, not criminals. Currently, those who are sex trafficked are often afraid to come forward because they could be charged with crimes such as prostitution. We need to get these minors help, not charge them with crimes.

This bill would take important steps forward by better enabling prosecutors to help victims and stop sex trafficking across the United States and on Indian reservations.

But we can’t eradicate human trafficking just by passing a law. Last September, I held a Senate hearing to bring about a larger discussion on human trafficking, as there is such little data or reporting on the issue. Recently, I traveled to Mexico, Arizona, and Minneapolis to listen to victims, advocates and law enforcement.

What I have learned is that we have to work together, all of us, to end trafficking.

That is why earlier this month in Fargo, I held a training session with U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials to raise awareness about trafficking. What the experts stress boils down to this: If you see something, say something.

Whether it is your employee, colleague, student, classmate, neighbor or friend, if they are showing indicators of trafficking, report it to law enforcement. Potential signs of someone being trafficked include: disorientation, fearfulness, lack of attendance at school or work, physical bruises, substandard work conditions, and signs of having been denied food, water, sleep or medical care.

You can learn more about what to look for in your community and how to report it by visiting dhs.gov/blue-campaign/join-fight.

Ending human trafficking is not an easy task, but by working together, we can stop it in North Dakota and around the globe. I’ll keep fighting to end these terrible crimes, and I hope you will join me.

Heitkamp, a Democrat, represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.

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