Human trafficking larger issue than many realize

The GBI announced this week a new 2018 human trafficking notice mandate. (Staff Photo: Jon Gosa)

ALBANY – In an ongoing effort to combat a crime considered by law enforcement officials to be particularly malicious and pervasive, human trafficking, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced this week the 2018 anti-human trafficking public safety notice that businesses and other establishments across the state are now required to publicly display.

The bilingual notification provides potential victims phone numbers to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and to a statewide Georgia hotline, available 24 hours a day, which provides anonymous help, training and general information.

“Human trafficking happens much more often than many people realize,” GBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Brian Johnston said. “This crime is nothing short of modern-day slavery.”

The illegal trade of human beings for the purpose of forced labor, sexual slavery or commercial sexual exploitation generates enormous profits in the United States and around the world for traffickers every year.

According to the International Labour Organization, just the forced labor portion of the human trafficking equation produced an estimated $150 billion in profits per annum as of 2014 from an estimated 21 million victims.

Of those, 14.2 million (68 percent) were exploited for labor, 4.5 million (22 percent) were sexually exploited, and 2.2 million (10 percent) were exploited in state-imposed forced labor.

“One of the biggest things that happened in Georgia to combat human trafficking was probably back in 2011,” Johnston said. “During that Legislative session, there were some bills passed that really put some teeth into our sentencing structure and how we are dealing with this issue in Georgia, very specifically to child sex trafficking.”

According to Johnston, in Georgia, a child is any person under the age of 17.

“During that session, some sentencing guidelines were added dealing with what a perpetrator could be charged with or would be facing – these were very much increased,” he explained. “Also, it made it a very victim-centered approach. In other words, we want to consider those that are 17-years old and younger who are forced or are involved in commercial sex, period, to be considered victims.”

Johnston explained that after the 2011 changes, the GBI expanded its statewide efforts.

“That’s kind of when the GBI stepped up a work unit to deal with this on a statewide basis,” the GBI agent said. “We immediately partnered with federal agencies, like the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations and the local metro Atlanta Police Department, who have been involved in this fight for years.”

According to Johnston, much of the GBI’s efforts involve training local agencies on how to “recognize” the problem of human trafficking.

“We spend a lot of our time doing training throughout the state teaching local law enforcement agencies and other organizations how to recognize this problem and, essentially, how to investigate it once a victim is identified,” Johnston said. “Now, as far as the GBI is concerned, we kind of laser-focus our efforts and concentrate our resources on the child sex trafficking part of human trafficking. Now we don’t ignore the adult trafficking or labor trafficking, but with the resources we have, we felt like going after predators of our children would be the best use of those resources.”

Asked how big of a problem human trafficking is in Georgia, Johnston explained that although some agencies theorize about the crime’s pervasiveness and even estimate numbers of victims, the crime, by its very nature, is hard to numerically quantify.

“It is hard to say exactly how big the problem is,” he said. “One of the difficulties in counting the problem or putting a numeric value to it is that this crime happens in the very dark corners of our world. So it is hard to get out there and ride up and down the street counting victims. What I can tell you is that most of the victims that come across our desk at some point have been runaways or throwaways, and a lot of them have been running from physical abuse or sexual abuse from their home.

“So when we go out and try to identify the problem, we try to look at the number of those cases that are happening in a community, because there is a huge correlation between those activities and someone being manipulated into the trafficking life.”

Johnston went on to explain that human trafficking is not an issue reserved for third-world countries or massive metropolitan areas. Human trafficking happens right here in Georgia.

“Human trafficking is everywhere,” he said. “That it only happens in big cities or other countries is one of the myths that we have to deal with. It is certainly easier, in some aspects, to sell a child in metropolitan areas, but the victims are coming from all over. They come from middle Georgia or very rural parts of the state and then can be trafficked in Macon or trafficked in Atlanta or Savannah or even other states.

“That is one thing that we really emphasize during our training sessions. You may not have the purchaser or the demand side of that in your community, but all of the kids that are runaways or are being abused in the home or have issues like that are vulnerable and subject to this. We don’t want people to have a closed mind by saying, ‘This doesn’t happen in my community.’ Because it does.”

Georgia law O.C.G.A. 16-5-47 now requires that all businesses and establishments such as adult entertainment establishments, bars, primary airports, passenger rail or light rail stations, bus stations, truck stops, emergency rooms within general acute care hospitals, urgent care centers, farm labor contractors and day haulers, privately operated job recruitment centers, safety rest areas located along interstate highways (in this state), hotels, businesses and establishments that offer massage or bodywork services by a person who is not a massage therapist, and government buildings must post/display the 2018 human trafficking notice in each public restroom and in a conspicuous place near any public entrance where similar notices are customarily posted.

“If you or anyone you know is a victim of human trafficking, the best place to start is to contact your local law enforcement agency,” Johnston said. “If it is an emergency situation call 911.”

I am primarily the public safety reporter, but also cover a variety of other news events and special features. I am a graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in Philosophy and have been with the Herald since April of 2016.

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