Walking in Vista: An effort to red-light human trafficking

Walking in Vista: An effort to red-light human trafficking
Supporters participate in the Human Trafficking Awareness Walk in Vista in 2012. Soroptimist International of Vista and North County Inland has hosted the walk since 2006. Photo courtesy of Runa Gunnars

VISTA — About 10 years ago it was brought to light that a girl in Vista was being abused by her father. But it wasn’t only her father abusing her — he was paid by other men to sexually abuse her, too.

Kaye Van Nevel, a member of Soroptimist International of Vista and North County Inland, said that story propelled her into the fight against human trafficking, and led her to organize the Human Trafficking Awareness Walk.

Soroptimist will host the 10th annual walk again Jan. 16 at the Wave Waterpark in Vista.

“It’s a horrible crime against women,” Van Nevel said. “It’s an inhumane degradation against women and girls.”

Up to 11,773 victims are sex-trafficked each year in San Diego County, according to a 2015 joint study by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University.

Human trafficking is also prevalent in regional schools, researchers found. Of the 140 school administrators and staff who were interviewed at 20 schools in the San Diego County, all said the recruitment of students for commercial sexual exploitation was happening on their campuses.

The prevalence of human trafficking is what drove Soroptimist member Runa Gunnars to organize the event this year.

“Our purpose is to let people know what is going on and to educate both adults and kids,” Gunnars said. “This isn’t a race. We’re walking to raise awareness and pass out information.”

Gunnars said she’s heard many firsthand stories of human trafficking victims, but the story that stands out most to her is of a woman from Japan who was abducted at an airport.

She was brainwashed and beaten for three years, Gunnars said.

“She was kept in a home in San Francisco,” Gunnars said. “She was told her family in Japan or her son would be killed if she left. They just kept her as a hostage.”

Gunnars said most victims are trafficked for money. The study by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene found that the underground sex-trafficking generates about $810 million in annual revenue in the region.

“They make more money doing sex-trafficking than drugs,” Gunnars said. “You can always sell a person over and over but you can only sell drugs once. The sad part is that people are buying.”

Gunnars said misconceptions hold people back from eliminating the crime. She said the biggest misconception is that it doesn’t exist in San Diego County.

“People don’t think it’s happening right here,” Gunnars said. “It’s the lack of education and it’s because we don’t want to see that. We close our eyes and think it will go away.”

Van Nevel said another misconception is that most victims are women and girls from outside the U.S. Seventy-two percent of victims are actually U.S. citizens, according to the Center for Public Policy Studies.

But public awareness has improved since she first organized the Human Trafficking Awareness Walk in 2006, said Van Nevel.

“I do believe that it’s changing,” Van Nevel said. “There are more safe houses, more education for our law enforcement, more education for our boys. We are making progress.”

Progress is made in Vista, too. The walk, which is being organized by nine Soroptimist members, is sponsored by nine North County businesses. Van Nevel expects more than 150 people will participate in the walk this year.

“The Soroptimist’ motto is to support human rights — particularly of women and children,” Van Nevel said.

The 10th annual Human Awareness Trafficking Walk will be at 12:30 p.m. Jan. 16 at the Wave Waterpark at 101 Wave Drive in Vista.

For more information, go to soroptimistvista.org.


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