COLUMBIA — Human trafficking remains a significant public safety and human rights problem in South Carolina, according to a report released Friday.
Local law enforcement agencies charged 59 counts of human trafficking in 2017, including 22 cases involving minors, according to the annual report from the Human Trafficking Task Force under the office of S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.
The top known locations of human trafficking were in the main population hubs, including Greenville, Charleston, Horry, Richland and Beaufort counties.
At the end of 2017, there were 72 human trafficking cases pending in South Carolina state courts after 18 cases were closed over the course of the year.
The annual report has been mandated by the Legislature since 2012. At the time of the task force's creation, there were 12 members in the group, a number that has since ballooned to 300 participating members from all types of duties and focuses in the state.
Collecting and analyzing more-comprehensive statistics on the prevalence of human trafficking in South Carolina was listed as an ongoing goal for the task force in 2018.
The report's release comes on the heels of a two-day meeting in Columbia of the Southeast Human Trafficking Coalition, a group that includes anti-human trafficking advocates from eight states.
"Human trafficking is the fastest-growing crime in the world, and South Carolina sits right between two of the top 20 hubs for it — Atlanta and Charlotte," Wilson said. "That's why we created our Human Trafficking Task Force and hosted this Southeastern meeting. It's going to take all of us working together to fight this modern-day slavery."
Human trafficking is defined as the use of force, fraud or coercion in the trade of people for sexual slavery, forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation. Though incidents can involve kidnappings, Wilson emphasized that culprits can also often be people who previously knew the victim and exploited the relationship.
Gov. Henry McMaster proclaimed January 2018 as Human Trafficking Awareness Month in the state. Awareness remains a central focus of the task force, which helped to educate some 25,000 people in South Carolina about the issue in 2017, Wilson said.
Those education efforts included the launch of a new website and the posting of three billboards in Myrtle Beach and Georgetown, with two focused on sexual exploitation and another on labor exploitation.
"This project helped bring awareness of the crime to thousands of tourists vacationing in the area while also familiarizing community members, including potential victims, with the national helplines," the report said.