BRYAN, TEXAS — Almost everything has been impacted by COVID-19, from livelihoods to even crime. One Brazos Valley nonprofit says the pandemic has actually heightened human and sex trafficking.
Unbound Bryan College Station works to end trafficking by providing support to survivors and resources to the community. The group has served a total of 17 survivors from 2018 until nine. Nine of the survivors were trafficked just this year.
"Human trafficking preys on vulnerabilities, and vulnerabilities are significantly heightened in something like a global pandemic," said Amanda Buenger, Executive Director of Unbound Bryan College Station.
The International Labor Organization estimates there are nearly 40 millon victims of human trafficking globally. Hundreds of thousands are located in the United States, with Texas a top location.
"The United States is in the top 3 in the world for human trafficking, and Texas is number 2 in the country for calls to the National Hotline for Human Trafficking. A lot of victims do come to Texas by their traffickers. It is really prevalent in Texas, and it is really important for Texas to be aware of it," said Sunitha Konatham, Executive Administrator of Unbound Bryan College Station.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, in 2019, nearly 2,000 cases of human trafficking were reported in Texas alone. Now in 2020 and amid a global pandemic, Konathan says people are more virtual in both their communication and socialization, meaning predators are getting creative.
"Traffickers are able to prey on those vulnerabilities online through social media, dating apps, through gaming to reach these people that are more vulnerable to human trafficking, and because COVID has created the environment of less in-person socialization and more online, that has created a shift in the way that traffickers are pursuing their victims," Konathan added.
Bryan-College Station's location within the Texas Triangle of Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio makes the Brazos Valley prone to the crime.
"We are located in an area that is heavily trafficked, and in location to those major cities makes us susceptible as well," Buenger added.
Buenger, who started the Bryan-College Station chapter of Unbound, says human trafficking happens everywhere. Even though Bryan-College Station isn't large in comparison to neighboring cities, the crime still happens right in our backyard.
"I do believe that Unbound has really partnered along and really collaborated with our community to make sure that individuals who are in this industry who are suffering as a victim know there is a way out and there are consequences and there is punishment for those who are perpetuating it," Buenger said.
Buenger says Unbound advocates for survivors and provides the general public with awareness of the issue.
"We are doing trainings within certain professions. What does human trafficking look like? If they were to come through your courtroom or your clinic or your classroom, how would you identify that?" she explained.
Unbound Bryan College Station says online exploitation numbers doubled in March and April of this year as the country went into quarantine, showing a troubling trend in the pursuit of victimization.
If you suspect human or sex trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text BEFREE (233733).