Podcast by Leischen Kranick, Edge Managing Editor and
Isabelle Vladoiu, Doctoral Student, founder, U.S. Institute of Diplomacy and Human Rights
Human trafficking is a billion-dollar industry and the second largest criminal activity in the world. In this episode, hear from doctoral student, Isabelle Vladiou, about her work educating people about how to identify human trafficking and safely report it. Also hear how human trafficking includes more than commercial sex and forced labor—it can include forced begging, organ trafficking, forced marriage and more.
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Read the Transcript:
Leischen Kranick: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host Leischen Kranick. Today, I’m joined again, by one of our outstanding doctoral students, Isabelle Vladoiu. Isabelle is currently enrolled as a doctoral student in the university’s Global Security program. In a previous episode, I talked to Isabelle about her work as the founder of the U.S. Institute of Diplomacy and Human Rights, work that led to her being awarded with a Lifetime Achievement Award by President Biden. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to that episode, I highly recommend you go back and check it out. And I want to welcome once again, Isabelle, thank you so much for being with me.
Isabelle Vladoiu: Thank you so much for the invitation.
Leischen Kranick: For this conversation, I want to talk specifically about the issue of human trafficking and what your organization does to address, what I consider, and many consider, a global epidemic. Can you start by just sharing a little bit about your work in addressing human trafficking and how it ties to your organization?
Isabelle Vladoiu: Thank you so much. At the U.S. Institute of Diplomacy and Human Rights, we are a think tank. We tackle human trafficking from different perspectives. One of them, which is the most permanent at our organization, is educating people about human trafficking, and specifically, how to early spot the signs of human trafficking to prevent themselves or their family, their loved ones, from being trafficked.
Another aspect of that, it’s also on the preventional aspect, is making sure that people are aware of regular people who don’t come to the training necessarily, but working in collaboration with governmental institutions, with corporates to implement human trafficking prevention and awareness programs.
For example, we work with flight attendants training them. We work with hotel industry to train their staff to spot human trafficking. And then, the third part is doing a lot of research and also advocating. In the U.S. Congress, there are several bills every single year, that try to get adopted in terms of preventing human trafficking. We work also on that, advocating for bills to pass, and that’s the span of our work.
Leischen Kranick: For those listeners who may not really know much about human trafficking, can you talk a little bit about where you’re seeing this issue? I think people think, “Oh, this is a problem that happens in far off countries,” and the reality is that this is happening everywhere, including our cities and towns. Can you just talk about of the prevalence of human trafficking?
Isabelle Vladoiu: Certainly. I always go out there and I do myth busters. A lot of the people don’t realize human trafficking is much more permanent and it happens every single day, next to us, without us realizing it, in America, and everywhere around the globe. As a matter of fact, human trafficking and slavery, is four times greater than in the 1800s. Human trafficking is a billion dollar industry, which is actually the second largest criminal activity in the world, after drug trafficking. The third one is weapon trafficking. As you can see, trafficking in human beings, it brings perpetrators much more wealth, than trafficking guns.
Then one other thing that people, when they hear the word human trafficking, they only think about what they’ve seen probably in movies, that there is a van stopping and kidnapping somebody, grabs it, puts it into the van, and then the family never sees that person ever again, which is not true.
Most of the cases, actually 90% of the cases of human trafficking do not include any type of violence, especially in the beginning. Most of the time, human trafficking happens in the family. Most of the time human trafficking happens with a lover-boy concept, where there is a person that promises another person, through fraudulent means, obviously, that they’re going to help them get a better life.
Also, another myth buster that I often struggle in explaining to people is, when you hear the word human trafficking, a lot of us think about commercial sex or forced labor, but there are actually many other types of human trafficking. Some of them recently started to grow more and we need to bring more awareness. Organ removal, it’s still human trafficking; forced begging: human trafficking; child soldiers: human trafficking; forced marriages: human trafficking. Here’s a couple of examples of human trafficking instances or examples where some people would not even think that, that’s human trafficking.
The need is to make you more aware of how human trafficking happens around you, to not believe in the movies necessarily, that human trafficking only includes violence and be able to help people around you make yourself and your family safe as well.
Leischen Kranick: That’s fascinating. I actually hadn’t thought of things like organ harvesting and things like that, as human trafficking, but you’re right, all those examples, and this is an issue that I thought and know quite a bit about, so that’s new to me. Thank you for sharing that.
I want to talk a little bit, obviously your organization focuses on training people to educate others out in the world, and you mentioned earlier that you focus on specific industries like the travel industry and hospitality. Can you talk about just how you specialize in that training? Are there specific things that, for example, you see in hospitality that’s different than what you might see in the travel industry?
Isabelle Vladoiu: Not necessarily. I was just providing a couple of examples. I focus on educating everyone, but I also give a special attention to industries where human trafficking happens, more prevalent. Whereas tourism, there’s human trafficking. Obviously, where there’s a lot of movement of people in hotels, in airports, in public transportation, there’s always human trafficking.
One other example is the forced begging. Some people don’t realize that you see somebody asking for money, you want to help that person, when in fact you don’t know that person is being forced out there to stay and beg. And what you’re doing, in fact, you encourage in a part, human trafficking or you are helping the perpetrators.
A lot of the people are not aware on the signs, the early signs of human trafficking and the reason why victims continue to be victims of human trafficking, let me give you an example, with the doctors. Girls, let’s say that are trafficked, they are often brought to the emergency room and then they usually have another person with them that speaks for them.
If I focus on training doctors and I focus on training nurses, they don’t even have to engage necessarily with the perpetrator or engage with the victim, they can just provide an anonymous tip at the National Human Trafficking Hotline and then they will handle it from there.
To give you another example, one of my students, a couple of years back, after she completed one of my trainings in human trafficking prevention, she was just at a hotel where she noticed a girl that was not dressed for the season, was followed by another man. And then she didn’t engage, she just was trained enough to spot the early signs of human trafficking that the victim was presenting, and she provided an anonymous step to the Human Trafficking Hotline.
The Human Trafficking Hotline let us know in about three weeks after the incident happened that an entire ring of human trafficking was taken down because of that anonymous tip. People won’t realize the power of knowing how to spot human trafficking, would actually change your life.
Every day I have students of mine and professionals who now are trained how to spot, and then they come back and say, “Oh my God, I did not even realize I took a train to this location and I just spot and I just figure out that’s traffic.” I had actually students coming to my training and saying, “By the end of the training, I was human trafficked.” They didn’t even realize up until that point where I educated them enough about this, that they themselves were human trafficked at one point. That goes to say a lot about the lack of awareness on how human trafficking happens nowadays.
Leischen Kranick: And that’s amazing that just to have that kind of influence in a way, just reporting one small detail can really, like you said, bring down an entire network and just having people aware of just how much of this is such a huge issue.
I wanted to talk, kind of shift from the signs and indicators of human trafficking and talk to you from a big-picture perspective. You mentioned some legislation and bills that you were working on or helping to assist with. Can you just talk about, where’s the big gap? Are there just not enough laws that specifically address human trafficking? Are there issues with those laws that prevent prosecuting these traffickers? What are you seeing from a legal big picture?
Isabelle Vladoiu: Back in 2018, I was part of an advocacy group and project where we helped pass the SESTA-FOSTA laws, which those laws specifically were targeting websites. So, technology moves much faster and then the legislators are not able to move as faster, but the perpetrators and the criminals are. They found inventive ways on how to post announcements, on announcement boards’ website, on trafficking people. And then there was no legislation in place and then nobody was liable, not the server, not the website owner, not the user who was posting the announcement because you couldn’t find anyone.
In 2018, we passed the SESTA and the FOSTA law, which are the correspondent in Senate in the U.S. Congress of the bills, which now websites such as Twitter, Facebook, Craigslist, they all had to change their entire structures to not allow human trafficking anymore to be present on their platforms.
At the same time, one of these websites, Backpage.com was entirely shut down. Their owners are in jail because they were actually found to be involved seriously in human trafficking. That’s one example on some of the problems I see right now.
The second thing is every year in the U.S. Congress, there are a lot of bills that focus on helping victims, victims’ assistance, victim housing, and there are many organization and NGOs that focus on that as well, which is very important because those girls, those boys, that have been trafficked, they really need a support out there. However, there’s much need also on the preventional aspects. A couple of years back, there was a bill introduced in the U.S. Congress by a sheriff in Texas, that wanted to create a program for all law enforcement in America to be able to spot easily human trafficking.
Unfortunately, that law didn’t pass, and this is some of the initiatives we are continuing to support and try to get passed, because we need our legislators and our people who run the country, to understand that there’s much need also on establishing protocols of preventing.
To move it a bit from the U.S. necessarily to international world. When the war in the Ukraine started, my team and I, we went in Romania, which is the neighboring country to help 1 million refugees understand and train them on human trafficking prevention. Some of the authorities were overwhelmed of, obviously, the wave of refugees, and they didn’t know how to reach out to them to help them protect. Eastern Europe was an area where human trafficking was prevalent before, but even now more than ever because of the war happening in Ukraine. A lot of the girls who we were trying to help come to the refugee centers, they were afraid to do that because they’ve had human trafficking incidents in the past.
That shows also a need of spreading out the word better, rather than just posting some signs on a law enforcement website. And, honestly, if you’re a refugee and you’re in transit, who has time to check the internet? What are some of the ways that governments or administrations on the ground, local governments, can come up with to post or to raise awareness on human trafficking?
I was recently in New York and I was staying at one of the hotels there and they had human trafficking stickers with some of the top signs of human trafficking and where to reach from for help in the bathroom on the mirrors. Is that maybe a good solution? I don’t know. It will have to take some time to start implementing and changing laws to allow more of the spreading of the awareness on human trafficking.
Leischen Kranick: Interesting. I bet that warmed your heart so much when you saw that in the bathroom of your hotel. I’ve seen that on the inside of the stalls too before that they have some information, which you got to get it where people can see it and understand it. Really great work, it’s obviously such a huge issue and I know when we talk about some of the legislation, in the past, there’s been a lot of jurisdictional problems, where an incident happens in one jurisdiction, but human trafficking rings travel around, and so it’s really hard from a law enforcement perspective to identify where the incident actually happened. I hope that in the near future, there is really a massive shift in trying to identify these human trafficking rings because as you indicate, it’s a big problem. It’s an online problem and it just doesn’t seem to be getting better necessarily. We keep seeing a lot of these rings get busted up and that’s great, but, obviously, they’re out there, so more needs to be done to address the issue of human trafficking.
Isabelle Vladoiu: I want to acknowledge you necessarily for that and the faculty obviously for, because it’s going to take podcasts such as this one and bringing awareness to people, in general, that’s part of educating people about this issue because I bet some of the listeners right now who are just listening to this, they just had some realization. Maybe they didn’t think it from that perspective. If we are able to reach out more people with education programs such as this one, it’s going to be wonderful.
Leischen Kranick: Well, anything else that you want to add about either your work on human trafficking or your insight into it?
Isabelle Vladoiu: Human trafficking is a problem that exists and it’s going to exist, unfortunately, for the near future. Our focus should be on how we can prevent it from expanding and without putting us in harm’s way. One of the things that I always encourage, and I want to send the message to the listeners here too, even if you see something, don’t necessarily actively engage with the perpetrator, the victim or anyone, because that can put you yourself in dangerous way. There are methods, especially in the U.S. where you can provide, as I provided the examples with an anonymous tip at the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
You don’t know what that is? Just Google it and you’ll find it. In the U.S. there are many programs. You go to the DMV session, there are the Blue Campaigns that the U.S. government has. They give you free cards that you can put in your wallet, and you actually, anytime you need that information, just keep it out there in your wallet. I encourage all my consultants and all my trained students to keep one of those in their wallets. They are for you to be out there as part of the U.S. government’s effort to actually help people be aware of some of the methods of reporting.
Leischen Kranick: Well, thank you. If you’re interested in learning more about Isabelle and her work, you can check out her organization. It’s called the U.S. Institute of Diplomacy and Human Rights at usidhr.org. And Isabelle, I just want to thank you so much again for taking the time to talk to me about this important issue. I really appreciate it.
Isabelle Vladoiu: Thank you so much again. I really enjoyed this session and thank you for bringing such an important issue forward.
Leischen Kranick: Wonderful. And thank you again to our listeners for joining us. Be well and stay safe.