School days for the modern child are filled with various warnings and assemblies designed to deliver such warnings.
It can be a bit overwhelming to sort through them all: Don’t do drugs. Stop, drop and roll. Practice abstinence. And so on and so forth, until the average student’s brain is filled with more prohibitions than they could have ever imagined.
On Tuesday at George Walton Academy, however, the upper school students at the private school got a glimpse at another world and advice on a much different scale of problem, as guest speaker Alia el-Sawi talked about the dangers of youth being forced into prostitution and other forced acts of labor.
“You don’t think slavery exists today, but it does,” el-Sawi said. “You may also think it’s something that happens overseas, not here, but it happens right here in Georgia, even in Monroe.”
El-Sawi is a victim assistance specialist for Immigration and Custom Enforcement through Homeland Security Investigations, serving Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina to provide educational training and outreach for law enforcement, attorneys, service providers and community groups, including schools, on human trafficking and child exploitation.
Based on her work interviewing victims and assisting with relief for survivors of trafficking cases, el-Sawi spoke to a full gymnasium of GWA students about cases she’d worked, stories she’d witnessed and what dangers lurked out of sight.
“It’s happening and we see it every day,” el-Sawi said.
El-Sawi mentioned one case in which a woman was brought into the country on a work visa, only to be essentially trapped in her employers’ home and forced into degrading situations out of sight of the world beyond the gated yard.
“No one knew there was basically a slave living in that household,” el-Sawi said.
Domestic servitude and forced labor are just one aspect of the trafficking world. One of the most notorious sides of that illicit industry is sex trafficking, which is estimated to generate nearly $9.5 billion in the U.S. alone.
“There are 600,000-800,000 people trafficking a year worldwide,” el-Sawi said. “Of those, around 14,500-17,500 are in the U.S.”
Homeland Security identifies countries around the world as being involved in the trafficking industry in one of three ways: source, transit or destination, with some nations providing victims, some being wayposts along the way and some being the final stop for the victims.
Some, however, can be all three, such as the U.S., where people are snatched into a life of prostitution or other issue and taken elsewhere in the country to work for pimps in big cities.
Atlanta, el-Sawi said, was a major hub of such activity, given its massive airport, interstate highways, large metropolitan areas and shifting population. It currently sits in the top 20 cities for trafficking in the nation.
“In a few years, when the Super Bowl comes to Atlanta, the number of people trafficked into the city will boom as demand increases,” el-Sawi said. “We call this sex tourism and many people will be involved in this.”
El-Sawi said that while the majority of victims of sex trafficking are female, they are not the only targets of such unscrupulous predators.
“This isn’t just an issue that affects young girls,” el-Sawi said. “Young boys and men are also victimized. About 80 percent of victims of sex trafficking are female and about 50 percent are minors.”
In fact, el-Sawi added, the average age of being forced into prostitution in the U.S. is between 13 and 14.
El-Sawi said most victims are runaways or displaced from their homes by disasters and other issues, but others are brought in from outside the country or tricked into such roles by predators.
Overall, she said, it is estimated nearly 12.3 million people are involved in forced labor of one kind or another. And while most, if not all, of the students in her audience would never be touched by such an issue, she warned the students to be careful and know how to keep themselves safe from such activities.
“It’s real,” el-Sawi said. “It’s happening out there right now.”