Webster combats human trafficking at home and abroad


At Webster University’s event “Understanding and Combatting Human Trafficking” on March 25, president Elizabeth Stroble wore two pieces of jewelry.

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Graphic by Brian Ruth

One, a necklace, was created by Made for Freedom, a St. Louis business which supports victims of human trafficking through selling their handmade crafts. Professors at Webster’s business school have mentored the business’s founder.

“Made for Freedom was an obvious choice for us, because we knew about the work of Made For Freedom, and how the enterprise has a business model attached to it but also a social good attached to it,” Stroble said.

Stroble also wore a bracelet which came from halfway around the world, a gift from women she met while visiting Webster’s campus in Leiden. They were beneficiaries of the Bijlmer Project, a rehabilitation program for victims of sex trafficking in the Netherlands.

Both pieces had a charm attached to them which read “love.”

The annual “Stop Human Trafficking” event at Webster is sponsored by Webster’s legal studies department, The Links Incorporated and Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (LSEM). This year’s discussion, given by two LSEM lawyers, focused on the connections between human trafficking and domestic violence.

Stroble said Webster’s work on human trafficking has given her a new understanding of the issue and the fact that even in countries such as the Netherlands, where selling sex is legal, it is not a “victimless enterprise.”

“I came to a deep understanding of how this affects human lives, not only in St. Louis but in the Netherlands and in many places where Webster has campuses,” Stroble said.

The St. Louis chapter of The Links, an organization of African-American women professionals, is another sponsor of the annual event. Susan E. Buford, the president of the St. Louis chapter, emphasized that human trafficking is an issue with a deep impact both in St. Louis and worldwide.

“The crisis of human trafficking is a global issue,” Buford said. “It is a travesty that many consider a problem of the past, but as we know that is far from the truth.”

The event’s speakers, Ashley Martin and Kim Allen, defined human trafficking as a problem present not only in the sex industry but in many service industries.

“It’s happening on college campuses, it happens on high school campuses, believe it or not, it is happening in restaurants, your favorite restaurants, and it’s happening everywhere,” Martin said. “If you go get your nails done, your hair done, it could be happening there.”

The definition of human trafficking, Martin said, requires an agent who recruits people using the means of “force, fraud or coercion” for commercial sex acts, labor or services. The exception to this is in cases involving minors, which are considered trafficking even if coercion is not proven.

In 2015, Missouri tied with Washington, D.C. for the twentieth highest number of human trafficking cases in the nation, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Martin said a major factor which contributes to that number is the isolation of immigrant communities, whose members may fear deportation and other retaliation from law enforcement.

That is what the LSEM’s Immigration Project strives to fix. Lawyers like Martin and Allen advocate in court for the legal rights of immigrants who have become victims of human trafficking. Often, the goal is helping them stay in the country.

“It takes all of us saying to survivors that we are going to be part of the solution, and either report that ‘hey, I see something weird or something strange here’, or actually help assist an organization that is rescuing victims,” Martin said. 

On another Webster University campus, professor Sheetal Shah is combating sex trafficking in a completely different legal landscape. While selling sex is legal in the Netherlands, Shah said sex trafficking is still an enormous issue.

Shah works with the Bijlmer Project, a collaboration between Webster Leiden and the non-profit Christian Aid and Resources Foundation. She gathers demographic data on the best ways to help survivors of trafficking. The project is named after the Bijlmer neighborhood, an ethnically diverse area of Amsterdam.

The men and women Shah works with mostly come from outside the European Union and face similar circumstances as LSEM’s clients in Missouri. 

Shah said people outside the country often have an idealized image of what the Netherlands’s sex trade looks like, but the reality is not glamorous or fun.

“Even in Leiden, as a matter of fact, there’s a street with two brothels, and it was one of my students who brought it to my attention to say ‘have you seen the women?’ and I said no, and she said, ‘they don’t look like they are there out of choice,’” Shah said.

For Shah, it is important to spread the word about trafficking to students to stop them from becoming consumers who are willing to ignore human rights abuses when purchasing sexual services.

That is the same reason why the LSEM lawyers said victims in St. Louis are exploited: economics.

“If people are already marginalized and vulnerable, they are easier to exploit,” Shah said.

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