A placard of a child sits on a table during a conference on human sex trafficking in Atlanta. The Georgia Department of Education estimates that about 5,000 girls in the state are at risk for human sex trafficking each year, and many of those children spend some time in a public school.Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
* About 27 million people are victims of human trafficking around the world and nearly half are children under the age of 18.
* About 5,000 girls a year are at risk of being sex trafficked in Georgia.
* Human trafficking is the fastest-growing industry in the world and second most-profitable behind drugs.
* Total annual revenue of human trafficking is $30 billion worldwide.
* 48 states and the District of Columbia have laws against human trafficking.
Source: "Not in Georgia: Combating Sex Trafficking" seminar
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
* Student's grades start slipping
* Girl with much older boyfriends
* Girls with low self-esteem
* Online predators because prostitution has moved to the Internet
* Children connected to gangs in schools
Source: Former FBI agent Maria Velikonja
ATLANTA — Human trafficking is the fastest-growing industry in the world and second most-profitable behind drugs, but one of the most difficult to prosecute, a former FBI agent said Tuesday.
"We do have a problem here. A lot of these victims don't come forward because many tend to be extremely fragile, don't trust law enforcement and don't wish to testify," Maria Velikonja, a former FBI agent and prosecutor, said at a two-day seminar on the issue.
Human trafficking often is tied to organized crime, said Velikonja, the keynote speaker at the "Not in Georgia: Combating Sex Trafficking" seminar hosted by the Georgia Department of Education with help from Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn.
But while a lot of attention is focused on international human trafficking, she said, there's also the problem of internal trafficking. About 5,000 girls a year are at risk of being sex trafficked in the Peach State and Atlanta is at the center of it, in part because of its international airport and highway system, according to speakers at the seminar.
"In Atlanta, you have an internal trafficking problem," Velikonja told a group of more than 50 seminar attendees. "Minors, many of them recruited in your own city, are transferred maybe to another county or state."
The seminars are designed to raise awareness and train educators on how to be first responders and what to look for, according to Joel Thornton, chief of staff with the state's department of education.
"Prevention is a big part of what we hope to accomplish," he said. "This may be the defining issue of this generation, and we can't afford to set it down."
Laverna Soucie is a hospice nurse, not an educator, but the Signal Mountain resident attended the seminar to find out more about human trafficking. She said she became interested in the subject after trying to adopt children from Romania.
She first adopted two boys in 2000 and was in the process of adopting two more children in 2004 when adoptions were closed amid claims of corruption. She later learned that some of the children were being trafficked, she said.
"It was surprising to learn how far behind we are and how traffickers are way ahead of us," she said.
Velikonja said she first learned about human trafficking while working in Bosnia and Croatia during the 1990s. During that time, officials with the Bosnian government approached her with concerns, she said.
They told her, "'We have something else going on we don't know how to explain. ... We have foreigners coming to our country from Russia, [from] Moldova, brought in to service the international peacekeepers,'" Velikonja recalled.
More than 2 million people are trafficked each year across international borders, she said. Victims often are forced to toil in sweatshops, construction sites and brothels.
Over the last several years, dozens of traffickers have been arrested in Georgia and around the Atlanta area, from a Mexican national who trafficked victims from his country to a pimp who recruited college students, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Coppedge with the Northern District of Georgia.
The key to winning the war against human trafficking is to be aware of the problem and to work together, which involves working with local law enforcement, said Velikonja.
"In order to solve these cases, police have to investigate and prosecutors prosecute," she said.
Velikonja said one of the problems may be underfunded law enforcement agencies.
The United States first passed legislation in 2000 -- the Trafficking Victims Protection Act -- which must be reauthorized every few years. A reauthorization bill is in Congress now.
During the Atlanta conference, Georgia educators also learned what to look for to detect possible human trafficking, including whether any of their female students are dating older men, and what to do to get students involved in keeping an eye out for possible trafficking.
Some attendees said they were putting information packages together or having local organizations talk to their students about human trafficking.
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...