LAST November, a whopping 83 percent of Georgia voters approved the Safe Harbor Act, which established a dedicated fund to help the youngest victims of sex trafficking.
The overwhelming passage of the constitutional amendment marked progress in the fight against human trafficking locally and statewide, though much work remains to eradicate the factors that make the $32 billion-a-year modern slavery industry possible.
An estimated 20 to 30 million people are currently trapped in labor and sexual servitude against their will around the world. A million men, women and children are thought to be trafficked throughout the United States at any given time.
Georgia has been identified as a human trafficking hotspot by the FBI, and after Operation Dark Knight broke up a prostitution ring in 2014 that put 23 people in jail, Savannah and the nearby I-95 corridor have been under scrutiny as one of the busiest human trafficking hubs in the state behind Atlanta.
Activists, service providers, social workers, business owners, law enforcement officials, caregivers and concerned citizens are invited to explore what roles they can play to reduce human trafficking in the community at the Savannah Traffick Jam, a free, all-day event at Savannah State University Student Union Ballroom on Saturday, Jan. 28.
Organized by Savannah Working Against Human Trafficking (SWAHT) and the Savannah Interagency Diversity Council (SIDC), the Traffick Jam aims to provide education on the warning signs and dispel false notions about trafficking in order to increase reporting of such crimes.
“We know there are a lot of misconceptions around sex trafficking, especially with law enforcement,” says Deirdre Harrison, director of SWAHT.
“Most people don’t realize that over a third of underage victims are boys, and the average age that a teen is brought into prostitution is 13 to 15.”
Sessions include an overview and discussion with Atlanta-based advocacy group Tapestri, youth peer mentoring with the teen survivors of Park Place Outreach and a workshop geared towards business owners on posting signs for the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The Rape Crisis Center, Greenbriar and other local organizations will provide resources and information on how to get involved.
Also present will be representatives from iCare, a non-profit that provides medical and mental health services to those traumatized by trafficking and is currently working to build a residential respite for victims in Augusta.
“For people who want to work on building a safe house locally, here is a group that is doing it and can share what it takes, how much it costs and how to establish relationships for capital development,” says Harrison, who is also working to ensure that part of the funding collected by the Safe Harbor Act finds its way to a safe house for coastal Georgia victims both male and female.
Georgia State University College of Law professor Dr. Jonathan Todres will deliver the keynote address in the morning, reiterating his message that ending human trafficking isn’t simply a legal issue.
“Law enforcement is essential, but we are not going to prosecute our way to the end of human trafficking,” says Dr. Todres, who has testified before Congress as an expert on child trafficking and exploitation.
“We need to develop a multi-sector response. We need law enforcement and social services, but we also need health care professionals, educators, businesses, the media, and others to play a role. Every sector has a needed skill set and is positioned to contribute to anti-trafficking efforts.”
He counsels that private citizens and employees have a vital role to play in identifying victims and reporting suspicious situations to the national hotline, while business owners can make sure that trafficking isn’t taking place in their organizations or along their supply chains.
“Companies can also contribute innovative ideas,” he adds, describing how in the United Arab Emirates, the government partnered with a Swiss company that developed a robot so young boys would not have to be trafficked to serve as camel jockeys.
“The critical step for any business is to work with anti-trafficking organizations to figure out how your core capabilities can be applied to combat human trafficking.”
Ultimately, he says, prevention must be the goal. The risk factors that allow a person to be coerced or forced into labor or commercial sex activities include poverty, drug abuse and poor education, and addressing those pernicious societal ills will help potential victims avoid the trap.
Shifting the focus to those who buy and sell the services of humans—the johns and pimps—is key. Harder legislation and increased penalties in Georgia have put perpetrators in prison and provided resources (the Safe Harbor Act is funded in part by fees paid by those convicted of sex crimes) though advocates also advise directing efforts towards education and empathy.
“The big thing we’ve got to think about is demand,” says Harrison with an emphatic nod.
“We have to have a cultural shift that says ‘this is not ok.’”
All Savannah Traffick Jam workshops and lectures are free to the public, with continuing education credits offered for social workers and legal professionals for a $50 fee. Other than those in required trainings, participants can come and go as they please, and child-friendly activities will be provided.
“We would never want someone not be able to come because they couldn’t find a sitter,” assures Harrison. “This may be a dark subject matter, but we’ll have age-appropriate things for everybody.”
Even those that can’t attend Saturday’s event can do their part to fight human trafficking by learning how to recognize the signs and keeping their eyes open. Terrible working conditions, not being allowed to speak for her/himself, and poor health are just a few red flags listed on the National Human Trafficking Hotline website.
The hotline accepted 507 calls last year, and Harrison says the majority came from concerned citizens who saw something suspicious and didn’t let it go.
“Just call the hotline,” she admonishes.
“That simple tool is all you need to know to help.”