Out of the Shadows

Shining a spotlight on the hidden world of human trafficking

David Okech

Associate Professor

School of Social Work

Written by Leigh Beeson

Published 12.04.19

Sometimes it happens like it does on TV.

Women and children kidnapped, transported across international borders in trucks, and sold to the highest bidder. Women brought to the U.S. under the pretense of getting a job only to end up shackled in someone’s basement.

More frequently, human trafficking is more complex, said David Okech, associate professor of social work at the University of Georgia.

It’s orphaned children who disappeared in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, picked up by child traffickers who took advantage of the chaos and the fact that no one would notice the children missing until it was too late. It’s ISIS fighters taking Yazidi women and children captive as they conquered land in the Middle East. It’s the extreme poverty of Eastern Europe that drives poor citizens to foreign countries where they are sold as maids and housekeepers but expected to work longer hours than any employee should. It’s children being forced out onto the streets of African cities, keeping them out of school and jeopardizing their future.

It’s hard—if not impossible—to pin down the numbers. Experts estimate there are tens of millions of people trapped in what they call modern slavery. The U.S. Department of State defines trafficking as an umbrella term that encompasses both sex trafficking and forced labor. Women and girls are disproportionately affected, comprising almost three of every four victims. About 10 million trafficked persons are children.

But these figures are really just informed guesses.

That’s something Okech wants to change.

Okech, along with the UGA-founded international consortium Africa Programming and Research Initiative to End Slavery (APRIES), recently received a $15.75 million grant from the U.S. Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, to study how, why and how frequently trafficking occurs in West Africa.

The grant scales up a $4 million grant Okech previously received to collect data on the prevalence of human trafficking in parts of Sierra Leone and Guinea, and enables Okech’s team to study the prevalence of trafficking in Senegal as well. The grant also gives organizations sorely needed funding to implement preventive programs and provide support to trafficking survivors. The grant will also launch a first-of-its-kind forum that will enlist scholars around the world to test and develop the best ways to estimate the prevalence of human trafficking.

“We need the numbers,” said Okech. “I don’t want to be told that it’s 1 million or it’s 10 million. We need a more accurate estimate so that our programming and policy work is commensurate to the problem. The APRIES team is well-positioned to contribute to these efforts.”

David OkechAssociate Professor of Social Work

People don’t realize that there’s trafficking in Athens, in Atlanta, in the U.S. It’s not something people talk about a lot in this country.

Learning more accurate estimates of trafficked people can provide a sense of scale that does not yet exist. The study will fill a sizeable gap in the human trafficking literature, in addition to providing a framework for future efforts to combat trafficking and reintegrate survivors so that they are on a path to stability and productivity. Members of the consortium have developed a model for reintegration, increasing transparency in labor supply chains in the cocoa and garment industries, and helping former child soldiers reacclimate to civilian life.

But trafficking doesn’t just affect people in Africa and other faraway places.

“People don’t realize that there’s trafficking in Athens, in Atlanta, in the U.S.,” said Okech. “It’s not something people talk about a lot in this country.”

Although some of the trafficking in the U.S. and Europe is for sex, many people are trafficked for labor in the restaurant and agriculture industries as well.

Others come from West Africa to become hairdressers only to find themselves on their feet for hours on end with little food and money.

Atlanta’s airport is said to be one of the main gateways to bring people to the U.S., which is why airline staff have been trained to spot possible victims. If travelers look as though they’re being controlled by the person they’re with, for instance, airline staff will engage with the person to further determine if they’re be being held against their will. A number of TSA and airport police have likewise been trained.

But there’s more to be done.

We have to know where victims are being trafficked from, how traffickers are communicating and getting their victims from place to place, if we are to successfully shut down supply trains, Okech says. The community also needs to be educated on what to look for: a person who seems disoriented or confused, who shows signs of abuse or who sounds coached when responding to questions about who they are and where they’re from. A child who is frequently absent from school, appears malnourished, seems to adhere to scripted or rehearsed responses in social interaction, or lacks official identification.

In 2018, former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal required notices to be posted in all public buildings with a number for people to report trafficking of themselves or others. The signs have started conversations about trafficking and helped people see that the issue is closer to home than they may think.

Okech aims to magnify that conversation by providing concrete evidence that moves us further towards ending trafficking.

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