SPECIAL REPORT: AU student works to fight human trafficking

LEE COUNTY (WTVM) – There are an estimated 40.3 million people trapped in modern-day slavery, according to the International Labor Organization, and 4.8 million of those are forced into sexual exploitation.

Lydia Johnston is a senior at Auburn University. During a break from school, she took a trip to the Philippines with an American organization working to fight human trafficking.

"Something I have always wanted to do is change the world," said Johnston. "I've always wanted to see a better world than there is."

For Johnston that better world is a place where women are not sold for sex.

On her trip to Angeles City in the Philippines, she, along with a group that traveled with her, spent evenings in bars where women are sold. Their hope is to connect with one of the women and help them begin a new life.

"You feel this heaviness when you walk in," said Johnston, "It's dark and you're seeing men just looking at them [the women] and it's like there's no respect. There's no love. It's just, a real place of the enemy where he's reached his claws in, and he just soaked up the life out of it."

While in the town, they distribute cards to the girls with their contact information. Many of the women are skeptical of help because the people who are now their pimps made similar promises to them.

"A lot of them don't trust us because they think we are just like the pimps. They told them they were giving them a job but really they put them into trafficking," she said.

Johnston recalls on a trip to the city a particular woman who said that the team's arrival was a miracle.

"This one girl, she lost our card and didn't have it for a long time. And then the next trip we did, we came in, and she was waiting for us. She said that she'd asked the Lord for us to come back, and we'd come back and she literally left with us that night," Johnston exclaimed.

When the girls leave their traffickers, they are provided with resources and protection to begin their new life.

"We put them in a home," explained Johnston. "We pay for their education. We provide them with food and clothing."

Here in America, we would like to think things like this could never happen.

While there are no open areas where people can freely purchase others; human trafficking is very much alive. Interstate 20 between Birmingham and Atlanta is considered to be the American sex trafficking superhighway.

Van Jackson is the Chief Investigator for the Lee County Sheriff's Office, and he says this is one area that their office pays close attention to.

"This is probably one of the hardest areas for us, and that's why we really concentrate on trying to make people aware," said Jackson.

Statistically, victims forced into human trafficking are between the ages of 12 and 14. To combat that alarming trend, the sheriff's office and Lee County Schools are working together to educate students in hopes that they can identify would-be traffickers.

"We want to make them aware of what this is and then make sure they recognize that it could be happening to them and then what to do if it is," explained Deputy Sheriff Pamela Revels.

The best tools in fighting trafficking, according to Jackson, is for the community to always report anything that seems unusual or out of place.

Potential warning signs may include:

  • A child that is not usually at a home that seems to just appear
  • Excessive measures of home security
    • Extra fencing
    • Electrical fencing
    • Barbed wire around the property
    • Cameras
    • Metal Door locks
    • Any extreme measure to reinforce or protect the home
  • Does the activity of the child fit with what most of the kids in the neighborhood are doing
    • Are they allowed to interact with other children
    • Are they free to be outside by themselves

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