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College alumna discusses human trafficking

Liz Harter | Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Saint Mary’s 2005 graduate Michelle Powell returned to campus Monday to give a presentation on the role of social workers in human trafficking – a subject she became familiar with through her work with the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

The presentation, entitled “Human Trafficking: The Critical Role of Social Workers in Anti-Trafficking Practices,” was attended by about 40 students, faculty and Sisters of the Holy Cross.

The social work majors and minors who attended were informed of the problems that social workers are faced with when they encounter human trafficking cases. Powell described what social workers could do if they encountered victims of human trafficking.

“Social workers play an important role [in identifying human trafficking],” Powell said. “It’s really hidden, but it’s also in plain sight if you know where to look for it.”

Powell works with the Department of Health and Human Services to identify human trafficking victims and put them in touch with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has outreach services for victims.

Human trafficking is the recruitment, buying, selling or coercing of individuals for a profit, Powell said.

“It’s modern-day slavery,” she said. “It’s also the fastest growing industry in the world, if you want to call it an industry.”

Powell began her presentation by clearing up common misconceptions about human trafficking.

She said that while many think trafficking victims fall under the sex trade and forced prostitution, sex trafficking is not the only form of human trafficking that the government recognizes and legislates against.

“It doesn’t have to be enforced prostitution or someone forced to make videos,” she said. “It could be the migrant farm worker who lives in a house of 20 people and is regularly beaten at night.”

Powell also informed the audience that another common misconception about trafficking is that it is inherently trans-national.

“The physical movement of the victim is not a requisite,” she said. “Trafficking is not only an international problem. … It’s here too.”

Human trafficking is also confused with smuggling, which is always an international problem, Powell said.

“The difference between smuggling and trafficking is that trafficking victims don’t consent [to their treatment], people who are smuggled consent and when they get [to the United States] they are free,” she said.

She acknowledged that while some people may agree to be brought to the United States, and therefore be considered a smuggled person, they could become a trafficking victim once they get here.

“It’s like a surprise ending,” she said.

Powell invited Sister Madeline Therese Wilhoit, a Holy Cross sister, to speak to the group as well to address the goal of prevention and how the church is involved.

Wilhoit spent 14 years in Ghana – a country in West Africa – as a missionary and encountered a lot of instances of human trafficking involving women in the poor villages taken to Amsterdam.

“We had the terrible problem in the villages of these nicely dressed business men coming to the village and telling the women that if they came to Amsterdam, they would be able to work in restaurants and nice places and be able to make money to send back to their families,” she said. “When [the women] got to Amsterdam, they were put into illegal labor practices and the sex trade.”

The mission with which Wilhoit served visited about 800 to 900 villages to try to warn the women that these men could not be trusted, but some were still taken, she said.

She said that if the women were found after being taken to Amsterdam and returned to Ghana, they often were disowned by their families because they had promised to bring money with them, which they did not have.

Safety is also an issue when victims want to return home after being rescued in America, Powell said.

“They might want to go home, but it might not be safe for them,” she said. “Their families may disown them or their families may be threatened.”

Human trafficking legislation has gained momentum in the United States, Powell said. The three main goals that the government works toward are protection, prosecution and prevention.

“Our ultimate goal is self-sufficiency for victims,” Powell said.