SF report uncovers nearly 500 cases of human trafficking

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There were almost 500 cases of human trafficking reported in San Francisco last year, according to a first-of-its-kind report recently released by a task force commissioned by Mayor Ed Lee.

The report, updated Monday by the Mayor’s Task Force on Anti-Human Trafficking — commissioned in March 2013 to improve the city’s handling of the ongoing issue —counted 499 victims of human trafficking identified by 15 government and community agencies throughout the city in 2015.

“Trafficking in persons is one of the most significant human rights issues of the 21st century,” the authors of the report wrote, adding that California ranks with New York, Texas and Oklahoma as among the states with the most human trafficking in the country.

Victims were not identified in the report to preserve their anonymity, and it’s possible that some of the victims may have been counted twice by different agencies, the report acknowledged.

Of the almost 500 victims, 122 were minors, almost all of whom were victims of commercial sex exploitation.

The report highlighted the strides the city has made since Mayor Lee made tackling the crime a priority of his administration, including decriminalizing prostitution by minors and a 24-hour crisis hotline for exploited youth, among other measures.

A number of recommendations were made by the task force in the report, including establishing city-wide screenings for victims of human trafficking and paying more attention and devoting more resources to labor trafficking, which could be an under-reported problem.

There were just 65 cases of labor trafficking — in which a person is held against their will and forced to work — reported. In September, four men escaped an illegal marijuana farm in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, where they said they were beaten and forced to work at gunpoint for months.

Outside of commercial sex, it is likely that labor trafficking “is more prevalent in San Francisco than is suggested by this report,” the task force wrote.

The report took pains to differentiate between sex trafficking — where victims are exploited for sex against their will — and sex work, or prostitution, which can be voluntary.

That follows an international push by sex workers and their advocates to decriminalize their trade, including a recent online petition with nearly 19,000 backers urging Gov. Jerry Brown to hear their concerns.

“In general discussions of human trafficking, sex trafficking is commonly conflated with sex work,” the report said.

Michael Bodley is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mbodley@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @michael_bodley