WASHINGTON (MCT) – In a chamber at standing-room-only capacity, with photographs of young victims flashing from TV screens, a House of Representatives panel held a hearing Monday to raise awareness about human trafficking. Of immediate concern among the legislators is this Sunday's Super Bowl, an event that is thought to heighten the demand for forced prostitution.
"We know that from the past, any sports venue – especially the Super Bowl – acts as a sex-trafficking magnet," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, global health, global human rights and international organizations.
The Super Bowl, America's most-watched sporting event and one that cities across the nation compete to host, has increasingly faced scrutiny as a draw for human trafficking and forced sex labor. Although no definitive figures exist, advocates argue that the large influx of men and the party atmosphere that surrounds the event make it a hot spot for individuals who exploit women and children.
"Major sporting events like the Super Bowl create a unique surge in demand for sex services," Carol Smolenski told the panel, stating that 100,000 children across the country are victims of forced sexual labor. Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT-USA, an anti-trafficking organization, said the Super Bowl is an easy target for both the supply and demand of forced sex labor because of the accessibility of hotels and transportation networks.
Statistics presented at the hearing depict human trafficking as a major industry in America's underground economy. An estimated $9.5 billion is generated annually, said Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo. The average forced-sex laborer is between the ages of 13 and 14, said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
New York state, across the Hudson River from MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, host of this year's Super Bowl, is one of America's worst offenders. The Empire State has the fourth-highest number of incidents of human trafficking in the nation, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, trailing only California, Texas and Florida.
Government officials in New Jersey and New York have been responding to trafficking concerns in the lead-up to Sunday night's game between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks.
The New York Port Authority Bus Terminal recently installed 25 anti-trafficking campaign posters. Similar posters are set to go up at the Newark, N.J., airport prior to the arrival of thousands of Super Bowl fans. Moreover, all Amtrak stations are set to show human-trafficking awareness videos for rail travelers. More than 80,000 people are expected to attend the Super Bowl festivities.
The issue of human trafficking, especially among underage girls, created a somber atmosphere in Monday's hearing room.
"I grew up in a family of domestic violence and I ran away," said Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash. "I understand why young women and men run away from home."
The NFL says it's been working closely with law enforcement officials to prevent human trafficking from taking place. In September, the league's security department met with officials from the FBI's Violent Crimes Against Children program to discuss the Super Bowl and Super Bowl-related events.
"As part of our ongoing efforts, the NFL has been meeting on this matter and many other security-related issues daily with federal, state and local law enforcement officials," Brian McCarthy, vice president of communications for the NFL, said in an email.