North Carolina -- Some of the same things that make North Carolina a draw for residents and visitors are among the same reasons the state now ranks high on a state by state human trafficking list.
The nonprofit Polaris Project has ranked the state among the top 10 in the nation for modern-day slavery. The data reflects actual calls to the national hotline from NC.
It includes victims held against their will for sex and those held for labor.
Advocates say the state has ranked high for years and it's because of its network of highways, military bases and ports.
It's unknown how many of the estimated 27 million human trafficking victims are being held in NC.
But local law enforcement agents say they know it's happening, however, because human trafficking is such an underground crime. It's rare for investigators to actually crack a case.
Advocates who help victims who are referred to World Relief in High Point say the reality is possibly much worse.
"When they can't hold their children, when they can't hold their spouse they can't enjoy the simple moments in life anymore, because they're being taken advantage of," one employee who works closely to victims explained. "Their vulnerability is being exploited to a horrific level."
Guilford County investigators uncovered their first human trafficking case back in 2010.
Sheriff's deputies found four men holding a woman against her will and forced her to have sex with strangers.
There was also another case in Forsyth County where Winston-Salem police said they rescued a woman being trafficked on Finch Street.
Police say the cases are rare because without cooperation from victims and neighbors noticing the signs, it's hard to bring traffickers to justice.
Most times victims aren't aware they are victims. They've been brainwashed or are in fear of speaking out for several reasons, including retaliation, according to advocates.
University students across the state are now working to raise awareness in hopes it will curb the practice.
Hayley Oosthuyen is with the UNC Greensboro group planning a 27-hour "Stand For Justice."
The number 27 is in reference to the estimated population of human trafficking victims around the world.
"This is an issue that affects every race, every religion and every gender. It doesn't belong to one certain group to fight it. It's human being issue," Oosthuyen said.
Oosthuyen's group has partnered with area businesses and nonprofit organizations for the March 26th event.
She says more than 150 students have already expressed interest in standing on campus around the clock for 27-hours to educate their peers about human trafficking.
"It was kind of like, how can I just turn away and act like it's OK and not do anything about it when I've been exposed to the atrocities of the whole industry?" said Oosthuyen.
The group also wants to educate people about signs they should look out for in their communities and perhaps help law enforcement investigate trafficking cases.
According to the Polaris Project, some of the signs include:
- An individual who is not free to come and go as he/she wishes
- High traffic and high security in the building where the individual spends most of their time or perhaps lives (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.).
- Also, when you reach out, that individual avoids eye contact or is anxious about speaking to you and others.
"It could be our kids, it could be our neighbors, and it could be our brothers, our sisters. Just because it hasn't happened to us or someone we know yet, doesn't mean it won't," said Joe McCann, a victims advocate with World Relief. "The fact that slavery still exists right now? Everyone should care. Everyone should care that there are still people enslaved."
McCann says those looking to become advocates or join their movement to raise awareness have several opportunities to get involved:
There's a Zumbathon event planned for March 26th.
They also have a Stand For freedom Taskforce.
You can find more information: www.worldrelief.org/highpoint.
You can also call 336-887-9007 for more information.