Modern-day slavery 

Human trafficking hits Savannah; how to recognize it and what to do about it

Savannah has all the ingredients needed to be a potential hotbed of modern-day slavery.

Nola Theiss is the executive director of Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating human trafficking.

“That’s not a metaphor, not poetry,” she said. “It is reality, it is slavery. And human trafficking is slavery. It exists all over the world, including the United States.”

Human trafficking is forcing someone to do something against their will without reimbursement. There are three kinds of human trafficking – forced labor, sex trafficking and domestic servitude.

Theiss — former mayor of Sanibel, Fla., where she was involved in a successful fight against trafficking — asked participants at a recent seminar hosted by the Zonta Club if they knew the danger signs of trafficking.

“Do you have an interstate, tourism, agriculture, industry, hotels, a port, young people, girls, poor people, homeless people, drug addicts and kids who have temporarily gone nuts?” she asked.

“If you answered yes to any of those things, there is a good chance human trafficking is going on in your community,” Theiss said.

Savannah has all of those things, and Theiss wants people here to know the signs of potential human trafficking.

Seminar participants agreed it can be difficult to spot trafficking. “I’ve probably seen these victims and didn’t know it,” said Helen Bradley, director of the Chatham County Victim-Witness Assistance Program.

As editor of La Voz Latina, John Newton deals with a population that has many people who are new to this country. “Chances are I’ve probably come into contact with victims, but was not aware of it,” he said.

“I’m not aware of anyone who has been trafficked,” said Sister Pauline O’Brien, director of the Social Apostolate. “But I’m sure we have them in the soup kitchen line.”

Jo Anne Garcia-Melendez, vice-president of the Zonta Club, organized the seminar. Forced labor is sometimes seen in agriculture, she said.

“I’ve had my share of such clients,” Garcia-Melendez said. “It’s impossible to get them to open up to interpreters. If law enforcement wants us to help them, we have to develop a detailed process so we can keep all identities secret.”

One whistle blower in Atlanta received death threats, Garcia-Melendez said. If a trafficked worker is injured, and someone at the hospital calls police, his employer might refuse to take other injured workers in for treatment, she said.

“Orthopedic surgeons see a lot of these on-the-job injuries,” Garcia-Melendez said. “The surgeons we talked to are very concerned. If we whistle-blow on the companies that send us their workers, they won’t get care.”

“Victims rarely go to authorities themselves,” Theiss said. “It takes a lot of trained intervention by social workers or law enforcement to get the truth out of these people. If they go to the emergency room, they’re afraid to tell what happened to them. If they go to a clinic to have a baby, now they’re afraid for the baby.”

Traffickers obtain victims through coercion, deception, fraud and even kidnapping, then keep them captive through threats, violence or economic means.

Children can be victims, too. It’s estimated that half of all runaways or missing children may be trafficked.

Parents can be traffickers, too. Kris Rice, director of the Children’s Advocacy Center, said she’s worked with children who were prostituted by parents with drug problems.

In 2004, the U.S. Justice Department estimated that 200,000 children in America are at risk for trafficking in the sex industry. “At least 2,100 children are reported missing every day,” Theiss said. “Most turn up. Some are lost forever, or come back but are gone again until they’re really in trouble.”

One common characteristic among trafficking victims is that they’ve been molested as children, Theiss said. “Traffickers are one of the groups that can read the signs,” she said.

Some children may be sold through unscrupulous adoption schemes.

“The price of a child in Asia is $114, in South America $250, in Eastern Europe $3,500 and in the U.S. $5,000,” Theiss said.

With an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people being trafficked across international borders each year, it’s a business that generates about $9.6 billion a year internationally, making it the second most profitable international crime, the most profitable being the illegal drug trade.

It can be difficult to get law enforcement officers to pay attention when someone ages 18-24 goes missing. Theiss’ own daughter ran away from home three times.

“They’re not children, they’re not tied down,” she said. “They’re just gone. Some are domestic victims of human trafficking.”

Victims are often undocumented immigrants. Theiss cited the case of a 12-year-old girl who showed up at a neighboring house, pregnant and bleeding, unable to speak English and tell anyone what was wrong next door.

“She’d been living in the house for nine months,” Theiss said. “Her job was to fix breakfast and lunches for a whole landscaping crew, take care of the children and keep the house clean. At night, she was a sex slave and had already been pregnant twice. She lost the first baby at 11.”

The girl was taken to a hospital. “A man shows up and says, ‘I’m her boyfriend. I’ll pay,’” Theiss said. “The police came and looked at the girl and the guy and didn’t do anything.”

The Department of Family and Children Services investigated, and moved the girl three times. Finally, a principal at a high school for young mothers intervened, and the four traffickers were arrested.

While many victims are recent immigrants, it’s estimated that as many as 200,000 Americans are trafficked.

“This is not an illegal immigrant issue,” Theiss said. “This is a human rights issue.”

Signs that a person is a victim include: they don’t have identification, they’re controlled physically or psychologically, they can’t move or leave their job, they labor in poor working conditions, they are overly dependent on their boss, spouse or others.

“The red flag is the victim doesn’t speak for him or herself,” Theiss said. “If you go out and offer workers a drink and they won’t take a bottle of water without permission from the boss, something is wrong.”

To report suspected trafficking call local law enforcement or the Department of Health & Human Services Trafficking Hotline, 1-888-373-7888. Info: www.humantraffickingawareness.com

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