More than a hundred people protested human trafficking during an awareness event in Pomona Sunday.
About 15,000 to 17,000 men, women and children are trafficked into the U.S. every year and nearly 300,000 U.S. children are at risk of being swept into commercial sexual exploitation, according to estimates by the CIA and the U.S. Department of Justice respectively.
This figure stands in stark contrast to the perception that human trafficking is a foreign problem, one that does not enter U.S. borders.
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"People in our society come across victims each and every day, they just don’t know it," said Kay Buck, executive director the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) in Los Angeles.
California is among the most vulnerable states for human trafficking, and Los Angeles is one of the top three points of entry for trafficking victims, according to CAST statistics.
Pomona "is sitting right in the middle, sandwiched between major areas of trafficking," said Pam Neighbour, director of the SHE Community of Pomona, citing the city’s position between San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, areas that the FBI has deemed hubs of prostitution.
Street prostitution has become a significant problem in Pomona, where many of the prostitutes are young girls, Buck said. Pomona police have established a two-person team to investigate and help eradicate the growing issue.
"I think they’re on the right track," said Buck, whose organization works with law enforcement on trafficking cases. "They’re reaching out, gaining the trust of these victims and trying to provide access to (alternative ways to make a living)."
Public awareness was a major part of the day’s event. Neighbour encouraged people to educate themselves on the issue and learn the national human trafficking hotline number – 888-373-7888.
The impetus for bringing an awareness campaign to Southern California came after Neighbour visited Thailand and Cambodia, where human trafficking is a big problem. She said meeting the victims of human trafficking gave her a renewed sense of reality.
"I thought, 'Wow, this really happens,' and it could be my neighbor down the street or the young at-risk kids at the local school," she said.
When Neighbour returned from her trip to Thailand and Cambodia, she discovered several organizations in Pomona were dedicated to stopping human trafficking and sexual exploitation but there was lack of public awareness.
Human trafficking is defined as performing labor or commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion, according to the Department of Justice. If the victim is under 18, those actions are considered human trafficking even if force, fraud or coercion are not present.
People tend to think of modern-day slavery in terms of sex slavery, Buck said. But forced labor slavery is a significant issue in the Inland Empire and Southern California.
The majority of human trafficking - about 80 percent - is classified as sex trafficking, according to the Department of Justice. About 10 percent is classified as labor trafficking.
Sunday’s event featured a screening of the film "FLESH: Bought and Sold in the US," a piece on the issue of human trafficking in the United States. Producers of the film were joined by representatives from the Pomona Police Department, California Against Slavery and Traffic Free Pomona for a panel interview.
This was the first time Mosaic Pomona hosted such an event in the area, but Neighbour said previous events in Chino and Chino Hills turned out hundreds of demonstrators.
Awareness campaigns and events dotted the Southland this weekend, with an anti-human trafficking awareness walk in San Bernardino County Saturday.
Emails were pouring in Sunday morning with interested parties curious about the event, Neighbour said, which was free and did not require an RSVP.
"It seems like once the word gets out and the public hears about it, the initial response is that 'I want to do something,'" she said.