The multi-million dollar grossing thriller Taken, released in 2008, has arguably done more to raise awareness of people trafficking and violent kidnapping than any other movie in recent times. Not only that, but it has sent shivers down the spines of all parents who have watched the movie, raising deep-seated fears that their own children could be violently kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. But what truth is there in the terrifying plot line? Are our daughters really at risk?
Taken – The movie
In the movie, Bryan Mills, played by Liam Neeson, allows his daughter to take a trip to Paris with her friend. Fresh off the plane they are befriended by a charming young man who suggests sharing a taxi to the center of Paris. It is a fateful journey, as the girls not only reveal that they are traveling alone, but also where they are staying. The young man, Peter, wastes no time in passing this information to an Albanian sex trafficking gang, who turn up at the girls’ apartment and violently kidnap them. Just before she is taken, Mills’ daughter manages to telephone her dad, a former CIA agent. In a brief conversation with one of the kidnappers, Mills vows to track down the gang and kill them. What ensues in the rest of the movie is a fast-paced, action adventure in which Mills tracks down the gang, kills most of the people involved and eventually discovers his daughter’s friend dead and his own daughter sold at an exclusive sex auction to a wealthy sheikh. All ends well as father and daughter are reunited and both traffickers and customers get their due.
The story behind the movie
For many years it was believed that the story was based on real life events involving William G. Hillar, who claimed to be a retired Special Forces operative whose daughter was kidnapped, kept as a sex slave and then murdered. Hillar was later exposed as a fraud, having made huge amounts of money from relating his story on the lecture circuit, after it was revealed that he had neither been in the army nor lost his daughter to human traffickers. This begs the question: how much of the Taken storyline is based on fact not fiction?
Whilst much of the plot of the movie has been fabricated to make for a great action adventure, there are some aspects of the story that sadly do reflect real life.
People trafficking is on the rise. It’s a global problem that, according to the U.S. State Department, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year, of which 80% are female and half are children. Children are trafficked for a number of different reasons – forced labor, domestic work, as child soldiers, camel jockeys, for begging, construction and mining work, and agricultural work. However, the vast majority of women and girls are trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Many girls who were originally trafficked for forced labor or domestic work, eventually end up being sexually exploited due to their vulnerability. Young girls are easy prey for traffickers since they can be easily manipulated and have a high earning potential.
Like many organized crimes, the rise of people trafficking has been driven by simple economics. Human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking). It’s a $32 billion-a-year industry and $15.5 billion profit of that is made in industrialized countries.
Like most sexual predators, traffickers are experts in manipulation. The predicament of the girls in the film all starts when they meet a charming young man. Traffickers know that girls are less wary of handsome and charming young men. In the film, the character Peter expertly employs the ruse of being a fellow young tourist to gain the girls’ trust. This is consistent with real life trafficking – most victims have been groomed or engaged with the perpetrators willingly to start with.
- Unfamiliar territory
People traffickers target the vulnerable. In reality this means that most victims are disadvantaged children from poor countries, runaways or homeless. However, the fact that young tourists are in unfamiliar territory without their usual support network or people looking out for them does make them easy prey. There are no statistics on how many young girls fall victim to traffickers in this way, but any form of vulnerability makes girls a target.
- Albanian link & involvement of higher officials
The movie depicts the kidnappers as an Albanian trafficking gang. It is likely that this wasn’t a random choice by the movie makers. The United Nations has found that child trafficking from Eastern Europe is a significant problem, as poverty and inaction by the authorities has allowed the trade to thrive.
The movie’s depiction of a corrupt official is also not unheard of. In poor countries, where most victims are targeted, officials can often by bribed or intimidated to turn a blind eye to what is going on.
- Affluent Western victim
Whilst any young person can be a victim of trafficking and sexual exploitation, the affluent American teenager who is the protagonist of the movie, definitely represents a small minority. Traffickers are far more likely to target the vulnerable – they seek out young girls who are in care, are runaways or homeless, are illegal immigrants or drug addicts. Anyone who doesn’t have a family or strong social network looking out for them is easy prey. Traffickers use vulnerabilities to groom their victims; they often offer them something they don’t have, such as money, shelter or affection. In addition, most people who are trafficked come from poor countries, where the promise of work or a better life lures them into the traffickers’ arms.
- Violent kidnapping
The movie’s depiction of violent kidnapping is not the usual method employed by people traffickers. Kidnapping adds another crime to the already serious crime of people trafficking and represents extra risk to the criminal gangs. Luring and grooming is a far easier and safer way to target victims for the purposes of sexual exploitation. If a person has been kidnapped, they will also need to be held captive and this requires effort and money on the part of the kidnappers. It is far easier to hang on to someone who you have manipulated emotionally into staying with you than keeping someone under lock and key.
- ‘Slave’ auctions
It is not that common for people traffickers to ‘sell off’ their victims. The simple fact is that it is more profitable to force victims into prostitution, where they can be ‘sold’ over and over again.
- The happy ending
The movie ends with Bryan Mills rescuing his daughter before any real harm has come to her. Unfortunately, most victims of human trafficking in the real world cannot expect such a happy ending.
Even if the horrors shown in the movie Taken are not realistic in many ways, as the rates of people trafficking increase globally, it is worth being vigilant and making our children, especially our girls, aware of how people traffickers operate.