Today is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day

Today is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Human trafficking is the second fastest growing criminal industry in the U.S.

Some signs of human trafficking are:

  • Brusies
  • Appears malnourished
  • Looks extremely tired

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking please call the human trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

Children Recruiting Other Kids for Human Trafficking at Schools

ORLANDO, Fla. – Human trafficking is real and it is happening in Central Florida.

Crystal Blanton, co-chair of the Marion County Human Trafficking Task Force, said she receives thousands of reports from the National Human Trafficking Hotline every year.

“Usually the reports are in the thousands, every year,” Blanton said. “Thousands of people are being human trafficked. Right here in Marion County and across the state of Florida.”

Blanton said it’s not like the movies (“Taken” 2008), where young girls are taken during their summer vacations by foreign human traffickers to be sold to sultans or sheiks.

But local children, often as young as 12, are being recruited into a life of forced prostitution.

“I just think it’s the internet, I hate to say it,” Blanton said. “Social media has grown the field of human trafficking. It’s easier for these traffickers to make contact with victims.”

Blanton said traffickers look for vulnerable teenagers online — runaways, teenagers complaining about their lives and their parents, young people with drug addictions — and befriend them.

But human trafficking isn’t confined to any race or class, according to Blanton.

Some victims were on the honor roll headed to college.

“We’ve had doctors’ children who have been intertwined,” Blanton said.

Blanton also said human traffickers align with students and use them and their schools as recruiting grounds.

“There are recruiters, juvenile recruiters in the schools, working with a pimp of some kind, and they are sent out in the schools and given a job to bring other minors on board,” Blanton said.

Blanton said the task force has had success educating Marion County elementary, middle and high school principals in looking for signs of human trafficking and placing Human Trafficking Hotlineposters in schools.

Mike Lanfersiek, a sergeant at the Human Trafficking Squad at Orlando’s Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation (MBI), said the definition of human trafficking is forcing a person to have sex or to work through force, fraud or coercion.

“Human trafficking is quite simply the exploitation of another person for commercial sex or forced labor,” Lanfersiek said.

Lanfersiek said once victims, female or male, enter into the life of human trafficking, they are kept there by their captor, taking advantage of their vulnerability.

“A vulnerability to substance abuse, the fear of physical beating, or withholding passports or documents, things like that,” Lanfersiek.

Lanfersiek’s Human Trafficking Squad has rescued hundreds of young women and children, often from hotels in the tourist district of Orange and Osceola Counties.

“Anywhere where the trafficker thinks there might be demand for commercial sex,” Lanfersiek said.

Traffickers often set up their prostitution operation at hotels because they cater to visitors in town for business or pleasure who are looking for sex, according to Lanfersiek.

Lanfersiek said he just rescued a 15-year-old girl from a hotel on International Drive.

“She had met someone on the ‘Plenty of Fish’ website and felt this person was her boyfriend, exploiting her vulnerabilities, pimping her out,” Lanfersiek said.

In July, MBI agents arrested three men for luring a teenage girl through a social media app to an International Drive hotel and then prostituting her and having sex with her.

In 2016, Orlando police charged two men with the death of a 14-year-old girl who they’d been allegedly prostituting, driving her to men’s homes to have sex.

Lanfersiek said MBI regularly sets up undercover sting operations to catch traffickers and rescue victims.

MBI analysts spend their days online, searching through postings by human traffickers looking for victims and offering them for prostitution.

Lanfersiek offered this warning: If you’re coming to Central Florida looking for a date for sex, you may get a date with an undercover officer.

Safe House for Child Victims of Human Trafficking to Open in Pensacola

A safe house for child victims of human trafficking will be opening in Pensacola this spring. It’s for girls between the ages of 12 and 17.

The safe house will be called The Secret Place. It will be on 10 acres in an undisclosed location. Organizers say they will partner with medical professionals to meet the girls’ physical and emotional needs.

Founder Kristin Lipscomb said, “These are our own kids, these kids being trafficked in Circuit 1. They are in our backyards, they are being trafficked by their own families and are being exploited and groomed.”

She hopes The Secret Place will allow these victims to start to heal.

“When traffickers grab hold of these children, they do everything you would think a human being would not do. They exploit them, rape them, damage them, control them,” Lipscomb said.

The Secret Place will provide the victims with counseling, dental care, OB-GYN services, and much more. Each girl will have her own room and bathroom.

The definition of human trafficking is broad. It’s not always a situation where a child is taken and sold in another country.

The Department of Homeland Security defines it as a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers control victims to engage in sex acts or labor services against their will. The Secret Place will be licensed by the state and work with the Department of Children and Families.

Program Director Alicia Tappan said they will be breaking a cycle for many of these girls. She said many victims don’t realize they are being trafficked.

“They don’t see it, they think it’s a job or a boyfriend and they really care about them, but in reality, they are exploiting and using them for their own gain,” she said.

She said through individual and group therapy, along with consistency, the program will allow the girls to heal.

“Having a home filled with safety, love, and protection and helping people move forward allows them to see life in a different light,” said Tappan.

It will cost about $400 a day per child to provide the services they need. They are asking for community support.

This weekend, they are holding a 5K race to raise funds and awareness. There is also a volunteer meeting on November 6. For details on how to get involved, click here.

Hundreds dead in ‘relentless bombing’ of Eastern Ghouta



The civilians who lost their lives on Wednesday morning were in the town of Kafr Batna, according to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets. More than 300 others were wounded in one of the most fierce attacks in the area since 2013 when a gas attack killed more than 100.

The “relentless” bombing, which Amnesty International said amounted to war crimes, has damaged or destroyed six hospitals and medical centres across the city, residents say.

“We stopped comprehending where the bombing is coming from, either from the sky or the ground,” Khalid Abulwafa, an ambulance driver and member of the Syrian Civil Defence, told Al Jazeera.

“We arrive at a site that has been hit, and immediately another attack follows… we just run to pull out as many people as possible before it’s too late,” he said.

“Multiple raids hit different areas at the same exact time… we don’t have the ability to rush to all the areas at once.”

Earlier this week, the United Nations and other international bodies expressed outrage at the number of civilian casualties. The UN called for an “immediate” stop to the “escalation” of violence.

‘Traumatised’ children

Amina Abdulrahman lost two children in the latest round of attacks.

“The shrapnel [from an air raid] ripped through the walls, killing Ahmed and Abir, who were barely 10 years old,” she told Al Jazeera.

“There was nothing I could do to save them…I had to bury my two 10-year-old children.”

Mahmoud Ajam, a resident of the suburb, said he cannot console his traumatised children.

“At night, I wrap myself and the kids under a blanket and try to help them go to sleep. I tell them everything will be back to normal the day after, and that they’ll be able to go to school,” he told Al Jazeera.

“But the day after, there is more and more shelling, and they can’t forget the scenes I try hard to help them overcome,” he said.

Eastern Ghouta is the last remaining rebel-held area east of Damascus and has been under siege by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces since 2013.

Aid workers struggle to treat the wounded with basic medical equipment and damaged facilities.

“Civil Defence bases have been targeted throughout Eastern Ghouta. We lost valuable equipment and members of our team,” Abulwafa, the aid worker, said.

“The regime is deliberately killing civilians,” he said.

According to Abdelwahab Abu Yahia, a field surgeon, the “horrendous” number of those wounded has become overwhelming to deal with.

“They come in waves, like a mother and her children for instance,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Our medical centre was hit in four air raids yesterday, which caused significant damage to the facility and the services it offers…Hospitals across the entire city have been bombed,” Abu Yahia added.

“There are no words to describe what is happening.”

Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Beirut, said the Syrian government is sending troops and reinforcements to the edges of Eastern Ghouta.

“The aim is to bomb people into submission, to force them to surrender,” she said from the capital of neighbouring Lebanon.

“The government wants the rebel enclave to surrender; they want thousands of rebels in Eastern Ghouta to lay down their arms and leave to other rebel-held areas.”

Another means of pressure is the imposition of a “crippling” blockade that has been in place for more than four years.

The siege has left some 400,000 people in dire need of food and medicine. Despite continuous calls by rights organisations for an immediate ceasefire and for the government to lift the siege, aid convoys have not been able to deliver much of the desperately needed supplies.

As such, overall access to the enclave remains “woefully inadequate”, the UN has said.

The lack of commodities has left residents with two main – and scarce – options to stay afloat, including rice and bread.

Abdulrahman, who lost 10-year-old Ahmed and Abir, says she now does everything in her power to protect her three other children and “never” lets them out her sight.

“We sleep and eat together and never leave the house at all,” she said.

“And sometimes, my husband and I don’t eat for days at a time to feed our children with the ongoing food shortages.”

Venezuela just defaulted, moving deeper into crisis


The South American country defaulted on its debt, according to a statement issued Monday night by S&P Global Ratings. The agency said the 30-day grace period had expired for a payment that was due in October.

A debt default risks setting off a dangerous series of events that could exacerbate Venezuela’s food and medical shortages.

If enough holders of a particular bond demand full and immediate repayment, it can prompt investors across all Venezuelan bonds to demand the same thing. Since Venezuela doesn’t have the money to pay all its bondholders right now, investors would then be entitled to seize the country’s assets — primarily barrels of oil — outside its borders.

Venezuela has no other meaningful income other than the oil it sells abroad. The government, meanwhile, has failed for years to ship in enough food and medicine for its citizens. As a result, Venezuelans are waiting hours in line to buy food and dying in hospitals that lack basic resources.

If investors seize the country’s oil shipments, the food and medical shortages would worsen quickly.

“Then it’s pandemonium,” says Fernando Freijedo, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research firm. “The humanitarian crisis is already pretty dire … it boggles the mind what could happen next.”

It’s not immediately clear what steps bondholders will take. Argentina went through a vaguely similar default, and its bondholders battled with the government for about 15 years until settling in 2016. Every case is different, though.

Related: Venezuela admits it can’t pay all its debts anymore

Venezuela and its state-run oil company, PDVSA, owe more than $60 billion just to bondholders. In total, the country owes far more: $196 billion, according to a paper published by the Harvard Law Roundtable and authored by lawyers Mark Walker and Richard Cooper.

Beyond bond payments, Venezuela owes money to China, Russia, oil service providers, U.S. airlines and many other entities. The nation’s central bank only has $9.6 billion in reserves because it has slowly drained its bank account over the years to make payments.

The S&P default announcement Monday came after Venezuelan government officials met with bondholders in Caracas. The meeting was reportedly brief and offered no clarity on how the government plans to restructure its debt.

The Venezuelan government blames its debt woes — and inability to pay — on a longstanding “economic war” waged by the U.S. More recently, the Trump administration slapped financial sanctions on Venezuela and PDVSA, barring banks in the U.S. from trading or investing in any newly issued Venezuelan debt.

But experts say the socialist Venezuelan regime that has been in power since 1999 bears the brunt of the blame. It fixed — or froze — prices on everything from a cup of coffee to a tank of gas in an effort to make goods more affordable for the masses. For years, Venezuelan leaders also fixed the exchange rate for their currency, the bolivar.

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Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi to Miss UN General Assembly Debate

Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is to miss a key UN debate next week as criticism grows of her handling of a crisis involving the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Some 370,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh since violence began last month. Whole villages have burned down.

The UN has accused the government of ethnic cleansing.

Myanmar’s military says it is fighting Rohingya militants and denies reports that it is targeting civilians.

The Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority in Buddhist-majority Rakhine, have long experienced persecution in Myanmar, which says they are illegal immigrants. They have lived in Myanmar, also known as Burma, for generations but are denied citizenship.

The UN Security Council is due to meet on Wednesday to discuss the crisis.

The organisation’s refugee agency says not enough aid is getting through to the Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh.

On visiting a camp, the UNHCR’s George William Okoth-Obbo said there needed to be a massive increase in help.

Has Aung San Suu Kyi changed her mind?

Ms Suu Kyi had been expected to participate in discussions at the General Assembly session in New York, which runs from 19 to 25 September.

A government spokesman, Aung Shin, told Reuters news agency that “perhaps” Ms Suu Kyi has “more pressing matters to deal with”, adding: “She’s never afraid of facing criticism or confronting problems.”

Another spokesman said Ms Suu Kyi would instead address the nation on TV on 19 September and “speak for national reconciliation and peace”.

In her first address to the General Assembly as national leader in September last year, the former opposition icon defended her government’s efforts to resolve the crisis over the treatment of the Rohingya.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who lived under house arrest for 15 years for her pro-democracy activism, is widely seen as the head of government in Myanmar.

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Picture from Reuters

Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the UN General Assembly last year


Rohingya Refugees Fleeing Myanmar Near 40,000

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Scores of people are reported to have died since Rohingya militants attacked police posts on 25 August.

Subsequent clashes have sent civilians from all communities fleeing.

Many Rohingya are trying to cross the Naf river to reach Bangladesh. On Friday, 16 more bodies were found washed up on the shore.

Their discovery brings the number of people believed to have died in capsized boats to about 40.

Mainuddin Khan, police chief of the Teknaf border town, told AFP news agency that the group included a young girl, and said they “had been floating in the river for a while”.

On Thursday the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said the “worsening cycle of violence” in Rakhine was of “grave concern and must be broken urgently”.

‘All space occupied’

UN officials in Bangladesh say 38,000 people have now crossed the border, while cautioning that the figure is an estimate.

“We are seeing lots of makeshifts tents and shelters on the side of the road – every available space is being occupied,” UNHCR regional spokeswoman Vivian Tan told the BBC.

Ms Tan said they had heard tales of people being shot as they tried to cross the border, but that it was not clear who was firing.

Thousands more people are waiting to cross the border, reports say. Ms Tan said border controls appeared to vary from place to place.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh