People who see the Jeffrey Epstein human trafficking case in the Virgin Islands as a unique situation just aren’t looking, according to an expert on the subject.
Sure, the sophisticated scheme that regularly brought girls and young women to his home on Little St. James island for sex services “was atypical because of its scale and scope,” said Bridgette Carr, the director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. But at its core, it was a classic case of a widespread criminal phenomenon.
Globally, some 43 million people are believed to be victims of human trafficking, which encompasses labor exploitation, forced or coerced sex work and slavery, Carr said.
There are no statistics specific to the U.S., she said, but instances of human trafficking have been uncovered “any place we look,” whether that’s big cities, small towns, or island communities.
“It isn’t something that’s happening just in the movies,” Carr said. “It’s not hidden in the shadows either.”
There’s the brothel where the ladies don’t speak English. There are the men who hang out waiting for a pick-up to load them in the back and take them to a construction site. There’s the woman who cleans houses for a very small bit of cash.
Not far from where she lives in Michigan, Carr said there is a billboard on the highway advertising an “Oriental spa” that’s open from 9 a.m to 2 a.m. and has “semi-truck parking available.”
“I’ve stopped being surprised at where I see it,” she said.
But obvious as the signs may be, they are often ignored.
“We choose not to see it,” said Carr. “Or we look away.”
The imbalance between power and vulnerability is at the heart of the problem, she said.
Many things can make a person vulnerable to a predator, including trauma, poverty, inexperience and a lack of education, a dysfunctional family, and lack of affection. People coming to a new place often “are vulnerable to trafficking,” especially because of their immigration status, she said.
The Virgin Islands is receiving a settlement of $75 million in its suit against JPMorgan Chase, as announced this week.
Asked how that money might best be spent, Carr said, “Any work that’s done to decrease vulnerability is a really good use.” That’s a wide scope and includes things like providing good jobs and good housing to improve people’s economic status.
It could also help fund training for healthcare workers and law enforcement and others to help identify survivors of human trafficking and help them deal with the long-term trauma that so often results from the experience, she said.