LAWRENCE — The success of Oscar-winning film “12 Years a Slave” has brought wide attention to the pre-Civil War memoir of Solomon Northup, a freeborn man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery for 12 years in Louisiana.
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, but sadly pieces of Northup’s story still ring true today as human trafficking remains operating in a shadow of everyday life. A team of University of Kansas researchers is studying a myriad of issues surrounding trafficking and developing a prevention model with the goal it could one day apply both nationally and internationally.
“We’re working on an empirical model for assessing vulnerabilities within populations that can eventually lead to exploitation,” said Hannah Britton, director of ASHTI, the Anti-Slavery and Human Trafficking Initiative. “We’re looking at risk and protective factors and communities that can help people avoid exploitation.”
ASHTI in March launched its website, which will include preliminary research findings, said Britton, who is an associate professor of political science and women, gender and sexuality studies as well as director of the Center for International Political Analysis at KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research, which houses ASHTI.
The launch of the website comes one year after Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and KU hosted the Kansas Conference on Slavery and Human Trafficking on campus.
Britton said development of the preventive model is based on research the team is still gathering in the Kansas City metropolitan area through working with a wide variety of groups, including service providers, law enforcement, prosecutors, churches, organizations that work on immigration rights or migrant labor, and English-language learning classes.
Modern-day slavery and human trafficking manifests itself in various ways, including providing forced labor or sexual exploitation. Research estimates tens of thousands of people are living in the United States in some type of modern-day slavery.
So far, the ASHTI team’s research has identified several factors that can leave people vulnerable to human trafficking. People who have a limited knowledge of the English language are typically at risk because they often aren’t educated on the legal rights they have or because they have a more difficult time navigating the legal system. Poverty is also a significant factor, although other risk factors affect people from middle- or upper-class families as well.
Instability in one’s family structure or home life can create a major risk for someone to become a victim of exploitation.
Britton said the group is also looking at protective factors that can help victims of human trafficking safely free themselves.
“Either they had a fairly good education, or they knew that’s a pathway out of exploitation,” she said. “Education is very helpful.”
Often labor rights groups and educational programs provide assistance or enough awareness for certain victims to realize they are being exploited for work or otherwise, Britton said.
The research team considers a preventive model a key to combating human trafficking alongside prosecution. While there have been high-profile cases about trafficking rings, it’s still a lucrative business within the informal economy and an international issue.
For example, among the populations in the Kansas City research project, while most victims are from the United States, researchers have identified people from other countries, such as Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Moldova, Ukraine, the Philippines and many former Soviet republics.
“I think we all know that demand pushes trafficking. It’s interesting to me how much our participants in the study talked about that. If they could get rid of the demand, there would not be this recruitment and this cultivation of potential trafficked persons,” Britton said. “So dealing with the demand for sex trafficking, dealing with the demand for a poorly paid workforce, those types of things are driving this. And that’s really hard to address.”
In addition to research, ASHTI addresses teaching and advocacy. This includes supporting a Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic at the KU School of Law, which is seeking to create the first anti-human trafficking legal clinic based on such a partnership. In December, the MLP Clinic was selected as a finalist in the first round of the Partnership for Freedom, a national competition seeking innovative ideas to better care for survivors of modern-day slavery.
Britton hopes the broad approach of KU’s involvement and momentum such as from the 2013 conference can help the ASHTI project spread its preventive model on an international level and put modern-day slavery and trafficking even more in the public eye.
“People can be trafficked in plain sight — literally in plain sight,” she said. “If you’re aware of it, you start to look for it.”