Workshop illuminates trafficking issue

Sally Engle Merry, a professor of anthropology and director of the human rights program at New York University, speaks at the Sex Trafficking Symposium Friday afternoon at the S.J. Quinney Law College of Law. Photo by Brent Uberty.
Sally Engle Merry, a professor of anthropology and director of the human
rights program at New York University, speaks at the Sex Trafficking Symposium Friday afternoon at the S.J. Quinney Law College of Law. Photo by Brent Uberty.
Students and faculty gathered to analyze the significance of international and local human sex trafficking and forced labor at a workshop hosted by the S.J. Quinney College of Law on Friday, Jan. 10.

The workshop included panel presentations by local police officials, Utah House of Representatives Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig, Chief Deputy Attorney General Kirk Torgensen and founder of Operation Underground Railroad Timothy Ballard. The program centered around a keynote address by Sally Engle Merry, a professor of anthropology and director of the human rights program at New York University.

While human trafficking is often viewed as a foreign issue, the panel focused mainly on its implications within the United States.

“There is a tendency in this country to see trafficking as a problem someplace else,” Merry said.
Even within Utah’s own state lines, human trafficking is a very real issue. The Polaris Project, an organization that works to prevent and educate about the subject, has put each state into a tier from one to four based on its efforts to combat the issue.

“Utah is in the third tier of four,” said Erika George, a professor of international law.

According to the Polaris Project’s descriptions, states within tier three have passed few laws to fight the issue and need to make considerable improvements to their current legal framework. The problem for Utah, George said, is its location.

“We are at the crossroads of two major highways, I-15 and I-80,” George said.

Truck stops are often sites of trafficking, and major events that Utah has hosted, such as the Olympics, “make policing more difficult to do.”

On an international level, the discrepancy between countries’ definitions of slavery and trafficking and the means by which data is collected makes it difficult to pass laws and acquire accurate statistics.

Merry’s research focuses on the importance of figures in the study of this matter.
“Data informs decision-making. We need to be skeptical about where the data comes from,” Merry said.

Similar to the Polaris Project’s rating system, the U.S. State Department ranks countries based on their efforts to combat trafficking, with tier one being the most effective and tier three the least. While the data provided by each country may not always be the most accurate, it does serve to shed light on a dark problem.

This year, the U is hosting a human rights workshop for the second year.

“We came up with the event last year,” said Margaret Vu, a third year student in law.

“[Trafficking] is something that’s captured me since high school.”

Vu, along with her peers Jade Fisher, Oriene Shin, Nubia Pena and Liesel LeCates, set up the workshop in order to educate students on a serious issue that not only exists in an international setting, but also locally.

“No one really knows about this problem,” Fisher said. “The idea here is to raise awareness for human trafficking.”

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