Human trafficking in Macon? Depends on whom you ask

For one woman, human trafficking began with an advertisement promising the opportunity to work in America at a hair salon. She was assured that her travel arrangements and documents would be taken care of.

It seemed like a perfect opportunity to work and earn enough money to send back home to support the woman's family and three young children.

Once she reached Atlanta, however, she found herself working in a massage parlor with false travel documents. She was forced to prostitute herself to a quota of 20 men to repay traffickers about $80,000 in exaggerated travel expenses, room and board, according to an Atlanta social service agency.

With Atlanta ranked as one of the largest cities nationally for human trafficking, Macon officials say it's possible that some of Macon's massage parlors could be forcing women to perform sex acts against their will.

Macon police have conducted two waves of raids at area massage parlors, arresting alleged madams and employees this summer.

During the most recent operation, police were joined by anti-human trafficking organizations and the Crisis Line and Safe House of Central Georgia.

Macon police Chief Mike Burns has declined to comment on whether police have uncovered cases of human trafficking. But the investigation of Macon's massage parlors continues.

City Councilman Erik Erickson said he believes Macon fits a worldwide pattern of where human trafficking has been uncovered.

"More likely than not, human trafficking is happening here," he said.

Erickson pointed to researched trends linked to human trafficking: the massage parlors typically employ Asian or eastern European women, some of the massage parlors are operated by people from out of state, and Macon is within 30 minutes of a military installation.

"Macon fits those patterns," he said.

Asked whether he believes human trafficking could be happening in Macon, Mayor Robert Reichert replied, "The credible possibility requires investigation."

Citing examples in large cities across the country where police have raided massage parlors, Mercer University professor Andrew Silver said he also believes there's enough suspicion to warrant inspections of the massage parlors.

Silver, an associate English professor, serves as an adviser to the Sex Trafficking Opposition Project, a group of students working to raise awareness about trafficking.

"If Macon's massage parlors are anything like the ones in Atlanta, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, then it's likely it's happening here," Silver said.

David Corr, a former Libertarian candidate for mayor and Macon City Council, said he has visited most of Macon's massage parlors, and he hasn't seen any signs of trafficking.

"I wanted to see for myself," he said. "I found everybody was doing it voluntarily."

Corr said on many visits the owners and managers were away, and he had an opportunity to speak with employees alone.

"I found a happy work force," he said. "It's not happening in the spas." Instead, Corr said the police investigation is infringing on business owners' — and customers' — rights.

He said the massage parlors bring tourism into the city and pump tourist dollars into the economy.

"What's going on at the spas isn't hurting anybody or violating (women's) rights," he said.


Although no one has definitively said whether human trafficking is happening in Macon, Burns has announced that officers will soon receive training on the subject.

Alia El-Sawi, who works for the Atlanta-based Tapestri human rights agency, said she will provide training for current officers and will begin teaching a class at the Macon Police Academy.

The curriculum will teach officers the signs they should look for and what questions they should ask to identify human trafficking.

Some of the questions, El-Sawi said, include: Is the woman being threatened with deportation? Has she been harmed? Have there been any threats to harm the woman's family? Are the women allowed to stop working? Where does the woman live?

El-Sawi said with Atlanta a short drive away, it's possible the traffickers also are in business in Middle Georgia.

"If it's happening in metro Atlanta, it shouldn't be a surprise that it's happening in Middle Georgia as well," she said, adding that many massage parlors being used to traffick women move the women from city to city.

El-Sawi provided training to Crisis Line volunteers last week to give them the knowledge they would need if human trafficking is uncovered in Middle Georgia.

Julie Steele, Crisis Line's executive director, said volunteers are charged with providing help for several counties in Middle Georgia, and there's a movement in the state to offer training on human trafficking.

"We need to be prepared to provide advocacy services and help with law enforcement and prosecution," she said.

As a result of the training, Steele said volunteers realized they'd already spoken to several women in "servile marriages" in which women are modern-day slaves.

Servile marriages, she said, is one type of human trafficking.

"We now have been able to identify these women," she said. "We didn't know what to call it at the time."

Speaking at a training session for Crisis Line, El-Sawi told volunteers the women enslaved in human trafficking aren't being held in chains or handcuffs.

Instead, she said traffickers use psychological coercion and physical force to motivate women to perform sex acts against their will.

She said traffickers often fabricate and exaggerate travel debt and living expenses, telling women that performing sex acts is the only way they can pay their tab.

The women's language and cultural barriers also are exploited, as is their limited knowledge of life in the United States.

For example, El-Sawi shared the story of one woman charged $60 a day to dry clean her uniform.

Without the ability to speak English, women have difficulty asking for help, she said.

The women don't know they can dial 911 for help and may fear the police because they fear deportation.

"They feel like they cannot leave their situation," El-Sawi told the volunteers. As a result, El-Sawi said victims of human trafficking she's spoken with in Atlanta have said they had as many as 55 customers a day, and most women admitted to having either a sexually transmitted disease or infection.

The only way to know whether human trafficking is happening at a massage parlor is for police to raid the business and for the women to be interviewed, El-Sawi said.

Immigration relief is available for women identified as being trafficked, she said, adding that visas are available that allow the women to remain in the United States legally.

In many cases, the women can't return home because of their fear of the traffickers or the cultural ostracizing they will endure once friends and relatives find out they've worked as prostitutes, El-Sawi said.

"It can leave them isolated," she said.

Assistance also is available to help the women with housing, language classes and education, El-Sawi said.