Students passed out cutout hearts on campus throughout the month of February, but they aren’t Valentines.
Necessary Improvements to Transform the Environment (N.I.T.E.) has distributed more than 400 felt light-blue hearts with statistics on human trafficking to students this month, hoping they would ask why the hearts were not pink or red.
The Blue Heart Campaign was launched by the United Nations to raise awareness for human trafficking, which is the third largest criminal industry in the world and is prevalent in the Tampa Bay area. Earlier this month, a woman was arrested in Riverview for trafficking six workers from Alabama to Immokalee, Fla., according to Channel 10 News.
Students who asked about the hearts would get a rundown of the facts.
“The blue symbolizes the sadness of those that are trafficked,” said N.I.T.E. President Erin Stassin, a senior majoring in criminology and literary studies. “The heart symbolizes that there are people out there who care about those people that are being trafficked.”
The Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking’s official website defines human trafficking as forced prostitution, pornography, physical labor, domestic servitude and imposed debts that victims believe they have to settle with their traffickers. Florida ranks third, behind California and New York, for the highest number of human trafficking victims coming into the U.S. each year, according to the Florida National Organization for Women’s website (FLNOW).
The Clearwater Area Task Force on Human Trafficking said on its website that there have been 104 arrests with 37 convictions and 25 confirmed severely affected victims in the Tampa Bay area as of January 2011, but there are between 18,000 to 50,000 estimated victims trafficked nationwide every year. N.I.T.E Outreach Coordinator Elizabeth Moschella, a sophomore majoring in psychology, stressed the importance of the issue, comparing it to sexual violence, something she has experienced firsthand.
“I was just like everybody else before I was raped,” Moschella said. “I was not concerned with it because I did not believe it affected me, because I didn’t want to believe it would affect me. I don’t want to be trafficked before I care about this issue. I want to stop it before it happens as opposed to after it happened.”
Students who received the hearts to pin to their shirts were invited to join organizations like Students Against Slavery and the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking or campus organizations like Center of Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention and N.I.T.E.
According to FLNOW, Florida is a hub for trafficking because it is a major tourist destination with high demand for different kinds of entertainment, leisure activities, hotel service and other physical labor. The state is also a peninsula that is surrounded by developing island nations from which people often emigrate, placing themselves at a greater risk for being trafficked.
According to FLNOW, 80 percent of trafficking victims are women and children.
Moschella said traffickers usually target minors between 12 and 18 and young adults because they are young, robust and can be easily manipulated into doing what the traffickers want.
Stassin said students should be wary of Internet advertisements from false companies for construction work or hotel housekeeping. Trafficked workers, in reality, would be subjected to long work hours with very little compensation.
“It’s not something that just happens in movies, and it’s not something that just happens in Soviet Russia,” Moschella said. “Everyone is like, ‘No, no, no, it doesn’t happen in the U.S.,’ but it does and it is very, very prevalent in our society. We tend to overlook it because people don’t want to believe that, first off, it can happen to them and, second off, it can happen to people they know and love.”