UAB prof explains why most in Alabama don’t know human trafficking exists

By Monique Jones

The Birmingham Times

Robert Blanton, a professor in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Government. (Provided photo)
Robert Blanton, a professor in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Government. (Provided photo)

Many Alabamians aren’t aware of the state’s role in human trafficking, said Robert Blanton, a professor in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Government.

“The big thing is that most people don’t even know it exists,” said Blanton, who taught the first Honors College course on human trafficking last spring at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  “I’ve found that that simple fact is mind-blowing to many people, which is what initially spurred my interest in the topic.”

Birmingham is a big hub in the Southeast for human trafficking, according to General Charles Krulak, co-chairman of the Human Rights First Effort to Combat and Disrupt Modern-Day Slavery/Human Trafficking.

Two of the busiest interstates for trafficking meet only in one spot in the country: Birmingham.

“I-65 and I-20 are the busiest interstates for trafficking and they meet right here,” Krulak said.  “For those people who think we’re a relatively small southern city, you happen to be sitting right in two of the most traveled trafficking interstates.”

Blanton said, “The basic problem is that trafficked people are very much a hidden population – we don’t look for them in our day-to-day existence, and tend to spare little thought about them,” he said. “As a rule, victims do various ‘service’ jobs that most people do not choose to do – sex work is the most common example. It is the most common type of trafficking in the U.S., but there are also cases of trafficking that have involved a wide range of businesses and services, including domestic help, agricultural work, restaurants, and even nail salons.”

How do you spot a victim of human trafficking?

“[I]s there evidence that an individual works long hours for little pay and is not able to come and go as they wish?” Blanton said. “Do they appear to be under age? Do they appear fearful or anxious? Do they show signs of abuse? Do other people often speak for them? Does the person have few personal possessions? Are they unable to provide an address?”

The FBI also lists other signs to look for when it comes to identifying human trafficking victims, including injuries from weapons or beatings, signs of torture such as cigarette burns, brands or scarring to indicate ownership, and malnourishment.

Blanton gave an example of how an aware citizen can save lives.

“…[T]here was a case in Atlanta where someone noticed that all of the staff at a restaurant rode to and from work in the same van,” he said. “They called it in and it turned out to be a forced labor situation.”

Staying vigilant and reporting potential cases can certainly limit human trafficking in Alabama, he said.

“We can never totally be rid of trafficking – there are economic incentives for this practice to exist, and wishing for an end to this is like wishing for an end to crime,” he said. “What I can see is a reduction in trafficking, due to increased awareness that slavery still exists as well as the necessary resources to help victims to get free and stay free.”