Opinion: Don't let human traffickers exploit pandemic

Melissa Weissman, David Manville and Craig Singleton

As we confront the COVID-19 crisis, there are criminals in our communities who would exploit the situation to advance their illicit activities, especially human traffickers. These criminals operate among us: according to the counter-trafficking organization Heyrick Research, there are 124 suspected illicit massage businesses (IMB) scattered across Michigan, some of which are near schools and churches. 

To combat this scourge, our leaders have prioritized efforts over the last year to disrupt and dismantle the networks that operate in our cities. No doubt you have seen them — seedy storefronts, typically located in strip malls, offering cheap massages nearly any time, day or night. These businesses, and the broader illicit massage industry, is one of the largest forms of human trafficking in our country, forcing thousands to provide sexual services and generating more than $3.5 billion in illegal annual revenue, much of which is laundered back to China and other countries in Asia. 

But COVID-19 has disrupted this. The current shelter-in-place order has forced many IMBs to close, denying traffickers the revenue that supports their nefarious activities. Although some may approach insolvency soon, others will operate clandestinely while others still will seek to take advantage of small business assistance programs to stay afloat. Allowing this to happen will only promote the continued victimization of vulnerable women, most of whom do not speak our language and are indebted to their traffickers.

Some of those who may be in a position to spot human trafficking include commercial motor vehicle drivers, public transportation companies, rest area attendants and truck stop employees.

We must deny these criminals the opportunity to exploit the pandemic and take decisive action to prevent these businesses from reopening. Fortunately, we are not the first state to face this challenge. An effective, low-cost way communities like San Jose, Calif., have nearly eliminated IMBs is through landlord education campaigns. These involve law enforcement informing the landlords of buildings which house IMBs about possible illegal activity taking place on the premises and requesting their assistance in terminating these leases. These campaigns do not require expensive or complicated investigations, as much of the work is based on publicly available information. 

Beyond landlord education, our officials can ensure illicit businesses remain closed long after our economy reopens by requiring suspect massage parlors to obtain health inspections and city approvals prior to reopening, particularly if such businesses have requested financial assistance. This oversight would shine a light on these criminal locations, especially in cases where victims are forced to live illegally on-site, while also preventing IMB owners from quickly generating revenue once the crisis is over.

Finally, investigators across the state should conduct due diligence on suspected IMB owners who seek taxpayer funds in the form of small business loans and other assistance programs. At a time when so many of our neighbors are struggling to make ends meet, this is hardly a time to throw a lifeline to criminals seeking to exploit our collective generosity. 

Human trafficking thrives in the darkness, but light can serve as an amazing antiseptic. As this industry is thrust into even darker corners during the COVID-19 crisis, there is a role for law enforcement, policymakers and even landlords to turn this crisis into an opportunity for good. 

Melissa Weissman is the director of research at the Grand Rapids-based NGO Solutions to End Exploitation and serves on the executive board of the Kent County Area Human Trafficking Coalition. 

David Manville is a professor in the social work department at Eastern Michigan University and the president of Sparrow Freedom Project, a Lyon-based non-profit organization committed to empowering survivors of human trafficking.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former diplomat, serves as the director of intelligence and analysis at Heyrick Research.