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US Campaign, Legislation Aims to Fight 'Modern Day Slavery'

FILE - Community members place hands on each others shoulders during a candlelit vigil in support of the “safe harbor” legislation for child victims of human trafficking, Dec. 11, 2014, in Atlanta.

Human trafficking is among the world's most lucrative criminal businesses, bringing in an estimated $150 billion each year. It is also a major problem in the United States, where efforts are underway to combat what is being called "modern day slavery."

As a 14-year-old, Holly Austin Smith was like many other kids her age.

"I was a troubled teenager. I was angry and confused, not getting along with my parents. I just had very low self-confidence," she said.

Around that time, Smith met an older man at a shopping mall near her home in the northeastern U.S. state of New Jersey.

"We exchanged phone numbers. And we talked on the phone. He said things to make me feel good about myself," she said.

The stranger painted a glamorous lifestyle. He said he traveled across the country, went to dance clubs, hung out with famous people. Eventually, Smith ran away with him, in search of a better life.

"But within hours of running away, I was forced into prostitution in Atlantic City, New Jersey." she said.

Children at Risk

Smith's story is not as rare as you may think. The FBI says the child sex trafficking industry in the U.S. is worth $9.5 billion every year.

By some estimates, as many as 300,000 children are at risk of sexual exploitation each year in the United States.

But this often goes unnoticed, partly because of how sexual exploitation is discussed, says Tina Frundt, another child sex trafficking victim.

"It happens right in front of us, and we name it something different. So for U.S. citizens, we say 'prostitutes' and 'prostitution,' but for foreign nationals we say 'sex trafficking.' So I think it's a disconnect on language," she said.

Frundt started Courtney's House, a non-profit organization in Washington that rescues boys and girls from the sex trade.

Human trafficking also takes other forms, including forced labor. William Bell says he has run into that problem as the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama.

"Our police department raided an apartment building. And there was a three-bedroom apartment that had 25 individuals working there sewing garments together. You would have never thought that would happen in a residential area," he said.

Efforts to Fight Human Trafficking

Mayor Bell is part of a task force organized by the group Human Rights First. It met this week in Washington to come up with a global anti-trafficking strategy.

The task force is co-chaired by retired U.S. General Chuck Krulak. "When I recognized the absolute dangers inherent in a global crime syndicate, basically, I wanted to attack it. I'm a fighter, and I wanted to attack it," he said.

General Krulak, who served as the highest-ranking officer in the Marine Corps, admits many human traffickers operate with virtual impunity. But he is confident that will change.

"We are going after what you'd call the big fish. We're going after the business of the business of modern day slavery and human trafficking. We are going to disrupt it, and we are going to make the perpetrators pay," he said.

Congressional Response

Some progress toward that end was made this week, when lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a dozen anti-human trafficking bills. The legislation addresses the issue from multiple angles. It includes tightening travel restrictions on known sex offenders, improving treatment for victims, and imposing penalties for knowingly selling ads that offer certain commercial sex acts.

Much of that legislation had already been passed by the House during previous sessions. But it failed to make it through the Senate, falling victim to a politically divided Washington atmosphere. There are again questions whether the bills will be delayed this time around.

As for Holly Austin Smith, she is now in her 30s and helps educate America's youth about how they are vulnerable to sex slavery.

"I recently spoke at my middle school from which I graduated in 1992. And one of the students said to me, 'Why am I just hearing about this now?' And I thought it was such a good question, because why is she just hearing about this now? If youth are commonly being targeted, then they have a right to know,"she said.

Smith says the recent anti-trafficking legislation is a good start. But it is clear there is a long way to go before the business of modern day slavery is disrupted.