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Mansfield Conference Puts Spotlight on Human Trafficking

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MISSOULA -

Studies show more than 17,000 people are being trafficked across the U.S. every year.

Globally, human trafficking is a $32 billion industry-- and it's growing.

This year's Mansfield Conference at the University of Montana brought together experts, activists and the community to help combat this international crisis.

Director of the Mansfield Center Dr. Abraham Kim said the goal of the conference is to raise awareness about human trafficking in Montana.

"I think very few people understand that this is the second largest criminal industry right behind drug trafficking," Kim said.

In fact, as many as 27 million people worldwide are trapped in modern slavery. But in Montana, Kim said the numbers are still unclear.

"We still need to do a lot more research, I think a lot of the things that we're hearing about are still anecdotal," he explained.

Experts who spoke at the conference said human trafficking is so prevalent because it's a lucrative business.

"Drugs, you sell it once and it's gone, you can sell a human being over and over, so it's a very lucrative, money-making process," said Diane Yarus, the Human Trafficking Chair for Soroptimist International of Whitefish.

Yarus said traffickers can also easily exploit vulnerable women and children.

"Traffickers know how to do that, they're targeted and from then, they've got them for the rest of their lives," she said.

The average age of entry into prostitution in the U.S. is 12-14, and Yarus said unfortunately, victims' lives are often cut short.

"Many of them commit suicide, they have drug overdoses or they're murdered in the process of what they're doing."

Yarus said the 2013 Montana Legislative session strengthened enforcement of human trafficking and prostitution laws.

However, she said communities need to become more educated on the crisis and learn how they can help stop it.

"We need to talk to those vulnerable populations about what the risks are, what the warning signs are," Yarus said.

The Mansfield Conference continues on Thursday with a series of workshops that are open to the public.

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