The staggering reality of human trafficking – and signs to look for

Part 1 of an interview with Rachel Linden,
Author of Becoming the Talbot Sisters

According to new estimates by the International Labor Organization, roughly 25 million people are in forced labor worldwide, and 4.8 million people, mostly women and children, are in forced sexual exploitation. It’s a staggering problem not just around the world, but here at home. Many of us don’t know what the warning signs to be on the lookout for.

Author Rachel Linden worked with a faith-based organization in Europe for seven years, focusing significantly on women who experienced trauma and exploitation, so human trafficking an issue close to her heart and one she addresses in her new book, Becoming the Talbot Sisters. She hopes through her story she’s able to help create a greater awareness of the problem at large. She will even be donating a portion of the sales to help exploited women.

“For years I’ve wanted to write a story about women who are caught in sex trafficking, but from a relational, women-centered angle,” Linden explains. “I wanted to tell a story about these women in a personal way with compassion and clarity rather than a sensational way that can cause further harm.”

She shares more about her experience in the interview below.

Q: Charlie’s decision to help trafficked women in the story is based on your own involvement with an international not for profit organization. Can you tell us more about your experiences and how you were able to work them into Charlie’s story?

For five years I lived in Budapest and worked specifically in the region of central Europe. I was able to use so many of my experiences as a basis for Charlie’s life and work in the story. I especially drew on my time working with women who had been traumatized. Some had been sexually exploited and forced into prostitution. Living in a region rife with sex trafficking, I came to see how widespread and pervasive the problem really is. As I met women who had been trafficked, I realized each one was a normal woman, just like me, despite the fact they had endured tremendous abuse and trauma. Many were mothers of young children. We had a lot in common.

I began to understand sex trafficking is huge in scope, but it is also very personal. Those sizeable numbers represent individuals with faces, names, and stories. As I came to know some of these women personally, it made the issue of trafficking extremely relevant for me as a woman and a person of faith. I could no longer look at it simply as a vast problem with staggering numbers attached. I had to look at it through the faces of the women I met. That changed everything! 

In the story, Charlie’s decision to help the women she encounters is a direct result of my experiences helping similar women. Charlie lays aside her own past trauma and enters into this sisterhood of women helping women, choosing to have courage in the face of great danger and personal risk. In different ways, Charlie and the women in the story all exhibit courage and resilience. They represent so much of my heart for women in trauma. My hope is that in telling this story, other women will be awakened to find their own courage and help stop the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women.

Q: How vast is the problem of human trafficking around the world and here in the United States? Are any of us truly aware of how prevalent the problem is here in our own backyard?
The problem of sex trafficking is staggering in scope. According to new estimates by the International Labor Organization, roughly 25 million people are in forced labor worldwide, and 4.8 million people, mostly women and children, are in forced sexual exploitation. That latter number is more than the entire state of South Carolina or the country of Ireland! 

It’s an enormous problem, but one that is shrouded in secrecy. We often aren’t aware of what is happening in our own cities. It was happening frequently in Budapest, but I didn’t recognize it until I learned some of the signs to look for. It happens in the US too, but often we are completely unaware of it until it hits the local or national news.

Q: What are some of the signs of trafficking to look for, and what should we do when we start to notice them?

There are a number of potential warning signs, but here are a few. For a more complete list, check out 
  • An individual, usually a woman or child, is accompanied by an older adult male who may pose as a father figure or boyfriend. This person is usually a pimp who is controlling the woman.
  • She is not free to come and go at will and does not seem to have official documents like a passport, visa papers, etc.
  • She shows signs of physical abuse – scars, burn marks, etc. She may also have a brand or tattoo, often a money symbol, name, or bar code which could indicate trafficking. 
  • She seems tense, nervous, does not make eye contact, is wary of law enforcement, and seems withdrawn or depressed.
  • She may live at her place of employment, works strange or long hours, and does not seem to control her own time or money.
  • She has a large debt she cannot seem to pay off but also may exhibit expensive clothes or jewelry.
  • She lives/works in a location with high security measures – bars inside the windows, barbed wire, security cameras, locked doors, etc.
  • She has a contradictory story, is vague or seems confused about her circumstances, and may be using drugs.

If you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

Q: Given that part of the book is set in Budapest, Hungary, did you have to do a lot of research on the area?

I had the privilege of living in the gorgeous city of Budapest for five years and working extensively in that region of central Europe. I had to do minimal research because so many of the places I describe in the book are places I’ve been, and lots of the small details were ones I’ve experienced firsthand. In a way I was living the research for this book! Central Europe is a beautiful, somewhat undiscovered region of the world, rich with culture, history, natural beauty, and of course, very yummy food. This story is, in a way, a love letter to a region of the world very close to my heart.

Q: You will be donating a portion of your author proceeds to an organization in Budapest, Hungary that helps women who have been exploited or trafficked. Can you tell us more about the work Hope Dies Last does and how you became involved with them?

Yes, I am absolutely thrilled to be supporting Hope Dies Last and their amazing work with trafficked and exploited women in Europe. They focus on creatively addressing the root causes of trafficking and sexual exploitation as well as supporting other anti-trafficking organizations in the region and working directly with women in Budapest and around Europe.

I first connected with them about five years ago and since then have supported the organization financially, served in an advisory role for them, and participated with them practically in the work they do. I know the staff very well and am consistently impressed by their integrity, creativity, and dedication as they work to help exploited women across Europe.