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Shunu Shrestha: Working to prevent human trafficking in Minneapolis

Shunu Shrestha is the new senior advisor for human trafficking prevention in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis was one of three cities in 2018 to receive funding for a position focused on fighting human trafficking; the first-of-its kind grant from Pathways to Freedom also funded positions in Chicago and Atlanta. The position lasts two years, and Shrestha has hit the ground running. A native of Nepal, she comes to  Minneapolis from Duluth, where she worked for the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault. While there, she coordinated the Duluth Trafficking Task Force to address sex trafficking. She holds a master of arts degree in human rights from Columbia University.

Shrestha spoke with MinnPost about the issues in Minneapolis — and elsewhere — that leave people vulnerable and put them at risk for human trafficking.

MinnPost: First off: let’s talk terms. What is human trafficking? Is that related to sex trafficking?

Shunu Shrestha: Put simply, human trafficking is the exploitation of people for labor or services. Human trafficking comprises sex trafficking, where people are made to sell sex, and labor trafficking, where people are forced to work against their will. In labor trafficking, they might not be paid for their work. They might be forced to work long hours or work in poor conditions, such as without running water, heat, or breaks. Employers might confiscate their documents, like passports, or otherwise manipulate them.

MP: That makes me think of sweatshops.

SS: Sweatshops, agricultural work, meat packing, janitorial services, restaurants — labor trafficking can happen in many fields. To be clear, as long as people who are hired in a job are paid what they were promised — at least minimum wage — and are working willingly, then that’s fine. When they are not paid what they are promised, then it becomes illegal activity.

MP: How big of a problem is human trafficking in Minneapolis?

SS: This is a problem everywhere, whether in Minneapolis or in Duluth, where I worked previously, or any small town in Minnesota — or anywhere in the world. In 2016 the Advocates for Human Rights detailed 17 incidents of labor trafficking in Minnesota that included 36 victims.

It’s a matter of awareness and education. We have done such a good job of bringing awareness about sex trafficking of young people in the last 10 years, but we haven’t done enough work to bring that much awareness of labor trafficking and labor exploitation. People don’t have the proper tools to identify these issues.

MP: What are your goals with this position?

Shunu Shrestha
Shunu Shrestha
SS: The primary goal is to help develop a comprehensive citywide approach to human trafficking with an emphasis on labor trafficking and sex trafficking of adults. What we hope to do here in Minneapolis is to provide education and tools to people so they can identify cases of labor trafficking. We also need to create a proper mechanism to document those cases.

We’re especially focused on particular groups of people that we have not done a good job of reaching out to, including some immigrant communities, communities of color, and undocumented people. My job involves engaging multiple systems within the city, including police, nonprofit service providers, faith-based communities, and survivors. We need to assess existing policies that are creating barriers for people to live a healthy life.

MP: Addressing barriers to healthy living — that sounds like it would be helpful to people even if they aren’t victims of human trafficking.

SS: Yes! The point of this position is to dig deeper into some of the practices that are already there and see how they’re making people vulnerable. When people are living in poverty or facing issues with immigration status or mental health, among others, these things can put people at risk to be preyed upon by traffickers.

MP: What are some measures that can help people who are most vulnerable?

SS: We can help people access affordable housing. If people can’t afford housing, that could put them in a vulnerable homeless situation. Health care is also important. A municipal ID would certainly help people access services. Another thing we can do is implement two ordinances Minneapolis has already passed: minimum Wage and safe and sick time.

MP: Sounds like there’s a focus on raising awareness and preventing people from falling into situations where they can be exploited.

SS: Yes. The hope is to help all of us to understand some of these complicated issues that are interconnected. This work might lead to new policies, better practices, and advocating for funding or resources.

MP: How can people contact you if they want to discuss human trafficking or if they’ve been a victim?

SS: They can email me at Shunu.shrestha@minneapolismn.gov or call me at (612) 673-6119. There’s also a statewide crisis/hotline which is operated by Day One that people can call – 1.866.223.1111 if they suspect human trafficking and/or need services.

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