Trafficked: One Girl's Story
Modern day slavery affects approximately 21 million people annually
When Akouavi Kpade Afolabi, a Togolese national living in New Jersey, came to Ghana in 2002, offering an education and the opportunity to earn money in the United States, Unique and her family were excited. Unique, then 12, was focused on doing well in school, and the chance to leave her village to study in America was too good to pass up.
Unique's parents sent her with Afolabi to live in Togo with half a dozen other young women and girls, ranging in age from 5 to 20, while their visas were secured and travel arrangements made. For the most part, they were treated well, though Unique did witness other girls sometimes being physical abused.
After a few months, Unique flew to New York City, and was then driven to East Orange, New Jersey, where she was told she would be attending school. But it turns out that school was never an option; instead, Unique was forced to work 16 hours a day, six days a week, in a hair braiding salon. She was not allowed to contact her family--save for one occasion shortly after her arrival, when Afolabi telephoned them and told Unique exactly what to say as she listened in on the call.
Afolabi owned the salon and masterfully controlled Unique and a house full of 20 girls, demanding that they give her every cent they made in the salon, including tips. Unique and the others were forbidden to go anywhere except for the salon, and back to the house at night. They could not go out alone, or date. Fear was Afolabi’s primary tool of control. She, her husband or son would beat one girl in front of the others for some random transgression, such as speaking to each other, or trying to communicate with a person outside of the house. Afolabi also threatened to use voodoo curses against the girls.
“I had no family or contacts in the community,” says Unique. “They didn’t give us identification papers of any kind, so there was nowhere to go or a way to get help for me. [Afolabi] would berate me and say things like, ‘you’re ugly, not beautiful at all.’ I felt manipulated. Quickly, I learned how to be a ‘good girl,’ so I wouldn’t get in trouble with my trafficker, or her son and husband who assisted.”
January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and while many think of slavery as something from centuries past, as depicted in the recent films “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained,” there are now more slaves in the world—including the United States—than when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1865. Today, according to the United Nations International Labor Organization, approximately 21 million people are trafficked annually. Twenty-two percent of them end up in prostitution or pornography.
Speaking at last September’s Clinton Global Initiative conference, Barack Obama gave the longest speech on slavery and human trafficking by a sitting president since Abraham Lincoln.
"When a little girl is sold by her impoverished family, or girls my daughters' ages run away from home and are lured -- that's slavery," he noted. "It's barbaric, it's evil, and it has no place in a civilized world."
Despite its most obvious connotation, “trafficking” does not necessarily involve movement from one place to another. It is a contemporary form of slavery in which individuals are coerced against their will—physically, verbally, psychologically—to perform an act of labor or service,. While many victims are targeted in developing countries, native-born Americans are not immune from being exploited. It’s hard to say how many victims are trafficked within, or into, the United States, but according to the department of justice, trafficking is the second largest growing criminal enterprise, behind drug-dealing, and half of the victims are juveniles.
“Traffickers take advantage of people with the least amount of resources available to them,” says Elizabeth Campbell, staff attorney at the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic.
The 4-year-old center is the first of its kind solely focused on the issue. Campbell says that when the clinic first started, most cases were foreign nationals who’d been brought by traffickers into the United States, but now, many are from the U.S. She and other advocates stress the importance of Congress re-authorizing the “T.V.P.A.,” or “Trafficking Victims Protection Act,” which was initially passed in 2000. It increases legal protections for survivors and bolsters state and national efforts to collect and disseminate information to front-line responders, public health officials and law enforcement officers. It also provides funding for key support services, such as counseling, housing, and raising awareness.
“Resources are the key factor in stopping this from happening,” says Terry Fitzpatrick, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based, Free the Slaves. “Some estimates of the number of people trafficked into this country say 17,000 people a year. That’s roughly the number of homicides which take place, and look at the energy and resources devoted to that issue. Human trafficking is not just a human rights issue, it’s a crime. So you have to fight it as such. The T.V.P.A. was passed under President Clinton, re-authorized twice under President Bush, and died in the last Congressional session. It’s the cornerstone of anti-slavery work and we need it to treat the survivors but also carry out prosecutions, train police officers. There’s slavery on every street corner, in every mall in America because we’re buying cell phones, computers, coffee, or some product of labor which was coerced or forced somewhere in the production chain.”
Unique was held captive for four years, until federal officers with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) raided the house where she was living, early one morning in 2007.
“They woke up everyone with their guns pointed on us,” she recalls. “I was extremely scared, but at the same time, relieved, because our trafficker was arrested."
Campbell and her colleagues assisted Unique after she was rescued and sent to Michigan through the national Unaccompanied Refugee Minors program, which assists by placing under-age trafficking victims in foster care or children’s services custody. Since Unique was a minor with no legal identification, immigration or residency papers, she couldn’t be sent back to her family after being freed.
In September 2010, Alofabi was sentenced to 27 years in prison by a federal judge for conspiracy to commit forced labor and other related crimes, including harboring and smuggling illegal aliens for profit. Her ex-husband, Lassissi Afolabi, received a 24 year sentence while her son, Derek, got a four-and-a-half year bid.
Today, Unique is attending college, and hopes to become a social worker. While she speaks with her family on the phone, she hasn't returned to Ghana as she is working to complete her education and attain U.S. citizenship.
“For sure, I want to help others like me, who experienced being trafficked, controlled, in the future” she says. “I thought many times about escaping, but I didn’t do it. My life was the hair shop, and the house. That was it. I wish one of my customers would’ve taken me outside and asked me the truth of what I was doing. It was obvious I was young and should’ve been in school. They just came in with their heads down, and then left afterwards. I would tell people who care about this issue and want to learn more to be aware, and ask questions if you think someone is being abused or exploited.”
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