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Alaskans can help bring safety and justice to victims of human trafficking

As we go about our lives -- working, going to school, raising children -- we enjoy the freedoms that Alaska and America offer. Under all circumstances, it is important to cherish and protect those liberties. When we learn that here, in our state, in our country, human beings are being held against their will, forced into the sex trade or made to work under heinous conditions, we have a responsibility to stand up for our values and do what is needed to stop human trafficking.

That is why in October, the state of Alaska (led by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development) and the Municipality of Anchorage joined together to create a Human Trafficking Working Group. Gov. Bill Walker and Mayor Ethan Berkowitz wanted their administrations to follow through on the good work begun by the 2012 Alaska Task Force on the Crimes of Human Trafficking. Our effort links local, state and federal resources, and brings government and service providers together in a common cause. We are committed to expanding the legal, law enforcement, and health and social service networks to bring safety and justice to Alaskans who have been abused and enslaved.

In recognition of the more than 20 million people who live in slavery around the world, January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. The statistics are staggering -- the International Labor Organization estimates that profits from trafficking exceed $30 billion a year. Human trafficking is the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world, after drug and weapons trafficking, and more people are trafficked today than at any point in history.

Combating human trafficking is complex and challenging. Human trafficking in Alaska does not exist in isolation -- it is part of a global criminal enterprise. Traffickers operate across borders, creating the need for coordination across jurisdictions outside the state. They target particularly vulnerable people, isolating them from friends and support networks. Many trafficking victims are already distrustful of law enforcement, are likely to be homeless, or have a history of child or sexual abuse. Many aren't aware of the organizations that assist victims.

Alaska has certain advantages -- we can innovate and deploy resources quickly. Where gaps exist in criminal and civil enforcement, we can fill them. When we learn better ways to provide services for victims, we will be more effective at combating these crimes. We are currently working with a range of organizations to ensure the best use of collective resources in support of victims when they escape. Additionally, we are ramping up training efforts for state and municipal employees to recognize and report trafficking. Working with our private-sector partners, we are creating a more effective, coordinated and efficient response to trafficking. The more we understand and recognize trafficking, the better our ability to reduce its incidence and leverage cooperation and collaboration between civil and criminal enforcement and service providers.

The Polaris Project, a national organization leading the fight against trafficking, lists a number of signs that an individual may be a victim: having one's passports taken away; showing signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, confinement or torture; being threatened or in debt to an employer; young people involved in the commercial sex industry; workers who are not free to come or go from their workplace, or who are not being paid. Recognizing these flags could be key to getting victims/survivors to help.

Human trafficking is an affront to our values as Alaskans. Stopping it requires working together to coordinate state and municipal law enforcement and service agencies to increase public awareness. When we cooperate and increase community awareness and involvement, we build our vision of Anchorage and Alaska as a place of opportunity and promise for all who live in our state.

For more information on human trafficking, see the Polaris Project (polarisproject.org) and the Office on Trafficking in Persons within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families (www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/endtrafficking). If you encounter what you suspect is human trafficking, please report it by calling the FBI main number, 907-276-4441, as well as the Anchorage Police Department's main number, 907-786-8500.

Heidi Drygas is Alaska's Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development.

Mara Kimmel is first lady of Anchorage and the co-founder of the Alaska Institute for Justice, a statewide nonprofit legal agency providing services to human trafficking victims.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any Web browser.

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