The Independent Student Newspaper of Northern Kentucky University.

Ysabel Cordova-Elias

A collaborative effort for greater understanding of human trafficking

April 3, 2023

What imagery does the phrase “human trafficking” evoke? A quick search on Google Images returns bound wrists and covered mouths and the helpless eyes of those who are silenced. Such images are what we have come to collectively associate with human trafficking, said Samantha Searls at a webinar on the topic last month, but their depiction strays far from the truth.

The Human Trafficking, Health Equity, and Academic Collaborative seeks to bridge this gap in understanding on regional, national and global levels, and educate the community on what human trafficking really involves. The project is the brainchild of Dr. Suk-hee Kim, associate professor in the School of Social Work at Northern Kentucky University. She reached out to Searls, program manager for human trafficking and immigration at the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center in Cincinnati, to commence a series of interactive Zoom webinars on human trafficking last October.

“This human trafficking [issue] is in my heart, and it’s one of the most significant issues that we know of in the Northern Kentucky-Greater Cincinnati region. We do not hear much about those challenges and issues and educational strategies for students, faculty and staff, including community partners,” Kim said. “If I am not giving [human trafficking] thoughts and a way of thinking to make better and safer communities, who will be?”

The webinar series runs the gamut of topics related to human trafficking. The very first webinar examines the federal definition of human trafficking: “a crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services, or to engage in commercial sex acts,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Three central components pertain to human trafficking: the acts (the recruitment or engagement of a person into forced labor or commercial sex), the means (the use of force, fraud or coercion to keep the person performing said activities) and the purpose (the trafficker’s goal and trafficking location). If any of these variables in the equation is missing, Searls said, a situation might not be legally considered human trafficking, however tragic it may be.

As the series progresses, it touches upon the social responses to human trafficking: popular myths and misconceptions surrounding trafficking, allyship and advocacy for survivors, the challenges of raising awareness and the importance of humanizing language. The latest webinar took place on March 15 and concerns identifying the root causes of human trafficking.

“Human trafficking is tied to a lot of human emotion and reaction,” Searls said. “That emotional response has dictated how we understand human trafficking. Sometimes we are blinded by the injustice of it all that we forget the reality, the stories of people who are hurt. A lot of misinformation is spread about human trafficking because of this response.”

Take abduction, for example. Searls said that abduction is extremely rare in real world human trafficking but it is a scenario that captures human emotions, thus it is more widely shared and discussed online and in the media. In reality, often traffickers already know the victims and can spin the act of trafficking in a compelling way, such as employers and agents who convince poor laborers to work overseas, only to confiscate their travel papers and restrict their movement once they arrive.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s July 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, 90,354 human trafficking victims were identified in 2021 by governments and law enforcement agencies around the globe, with 21,219 in labor trafficking. That is just the number of people legally identified as victims. The September 2022 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report states that 27.6 million people are in situations of forced labor—which includes commercial sex—on any given day.

Human trafficking is currently a $150 billion industry and the second largest criminal industry in the world next to drug trafficking, said Sheri Frey, a graduate social work research assistant with the collaborative. Frey previously interned as a nonresident advocate at Safe Haven Ministries, an emergency shelter for survivors of intimate partner violence and human trafficking in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

While no individual is impervious to the risk of human trafficking, the collaborative places emphasis on marginalized groups—people of color and LGBTQIA+ identifying people—as particularly vulnerable. In the “Words Matter: Language, Imagery and Storytelling in Human Trafficking Awareness” webinar, Searls stressed the importance of using language that neutrally describes trafficking situations without shifting blame on the trafficked people. Saying that a sex trafficking victim “engaged in prostitution,” for instance, implies that they were complicit and held some responsibility for the act.

“Talking about human trafficking is very hard and sometimes it feels fantastical, it doesn’t feel like it can happen to you,” Searls said. “The lesson that I do throughout all of my work is to build relationships with the community, so if someone bad shows up we can all have each other’s backs. Traffickers prey on vulnerable people and our society has made a lot of people vulnerable, whether that’s economically vulnerable or society has cast them aside. If we want to end trafficking, we need to take care of each other.”

The goal of the collaborative, according to Frey, is to facilitate discussions and raise awareness about human trafficking at NKU. These discussions could help create a powerful force against human trafficking that leaves a positive impact on the university, the surrounding community and set a precedent for other institutions to take action, she said.

Aside from the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, the project partners with NKU First-Year Experience, Teen Health Science Cafe and Northern Kentucky Area Development District. Until the series finishes in June this year, Dr. Kim hopes to raise human trafficking awareness among both college and high school students, faculty, staff and community members. The response has been positive: 471 NKU students participated in her survey on their familiarity with human trafficking.

“It gives us a baseline about what our students know, how they know, what they want to find out,” Kim said of the survey. Once the project has concluded, she would like to create a central information hub for human trafficking and health equity at NKU—and from there, microcredentials, mentoring programs, research opportunities, internships and collaborative workshops, all focused on enhancing understanding of human trafficking and providing resources to those in need.

The Human Trafficking, Health Equity, and Academic Collaborative website is the digital precursor to such a hub, listing resources for educators, research, community efforts and various other materials on human trafficking, as well as recordings of past webinars. The collaborative released two webinar sessions this January in celebration of National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and Kim sees the project as a celebration.

“I believe that through this project we can celebrate together, and at least one person [who is] now aware of the issue,” Kim said. “It can be a faculty, it can be a staff, it can be a student, it can be a community member that we can celebrate, even one person aware of this project is a huge success.”

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline on 1-888-373-7888, text 233733 or live chat at

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