Helping Prevent Human Trafficking

by | Jan 25, 2024 | Academics, Featured, Research and Innovation

Kezban Yagci Sokat, assistant professor of business analytics, in Washington, D.C., where she presented research and data on human trafficking at a public Department of Transportation hearing. Photo courtesy of Kezban Yagci Sokat.

Human trafficking is a dramatic, terrible problem, but one that is not always well understood by the general public. Kezban Yagci Sokat, assistant professor of business analytics at San José State University, hopes that education, collaboration and cooperation among the public, industry and government can help combat both misinformation and the problem itself.

Yagci Sokat’s research lies at the intersection of business analytics, transportation, supply chain dynamics and human trafficking. Originally from Türkiye (formerly spelled Turkey), she studied engineering and “always worked on using those skills for societal good.” After the Syrian refugee crisis, she hoped to use her skills for alleviating human suffering, especially through the potential labor and sex exploitation in the region, but couldn’t find data in the area. She moved to the US in 2007 and started working with the Cook County sheriff’s office, which is famous for its efforts to combat human trafficking, while she was a PhD student at Northwestern University.

In the fall of 2020, she came to San José State University, armed with grants from the Department of Transportation and other organizations. As a Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) research fellow, she often researches how the transportation industry can help prevent and combat trafficking. She describes her research as “using decision analytics management science tools to alleviate human suffering.”

As part of National Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we spoke with Yagci Sokat about her work, the misconceptions about human trafficking and what she thinks we can all do to stop human trafficking altogether. This interview has been edited for clarity.

What would you say are the main misconceptions people have about human trafficking?

Kezban Yagci Sokat (KYS): First of all, the definition of human trafficking changes based on the country you’re studying. In the United States specifically, I think we first need to change the mentality that it only happens elsewhere. I feel like the biggest misconception is that it only happens in low-income or middle-income countries, but according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, in some states in the US, the majority of human trafficking victims are local Americans.

It can happen anywhere and it can happen to anybody: any age, any gender, any ethnicity and race. It doesn’t spare anybody, or any group, any industry. It could be happening in your local grocery store, on your train, at the bus stop or at the airport.

What is the difference between sex trafficking and other types of human trafficking?

KYS: It’s often thought that human trafficking is only sex trafficking, which is another misconception. Labor trafficking is more common, when someone is forced to work using force, fraud or coercion. And labor trafficking is harder to spot and to report because it’s more hidden. Sex trafficking is potentially easier to see visually and it’s more sensational, and you can potentially empathize more with it. 

There’s also a misconception that most of the victims of labor trafficking enter countries illegally, but an international study found that 80% of labor trafficking victims entered legally. People pay less attention to labor trafficking but it’s happening more. 

There are various ways that labor trafficking takes place, but one example is debt bondage. In order to find work, the victim pre-pays an agency, for example. That is illegal, and the reason the traffickers are doing it is then to bind the victim in debt bondage: “You have to work for me until you pay your debt.”

Or maybe the trafficker tells the worker, “I’m paying your housing, so X amount of your salary has to be given to me.” Then the worker is in a situation where they can never actually pay off their debt. 

Labor trafficking also happens in various industries. It can be common in textile sweatshops, manufacturing, agriculture, domestic work, janitorial services and even legal marijuana farming in California. There’s also forced criminality, where maybe you’re sex trafficked, but you’re also forced to carry drugs — one forced crime can quickly follow another.

What should an average citizen be on the lookout for?

KYS: It depends on the situation, and everything is on a case-by-case basis. In an airport, for example, if you see someone holding five different passports, that’s a red flag. Technically everybody has to hold their own passport, especially through security or ticketing.

Another red flag is if there’s a group of people being asked questions, and only one person is always answering all the questions or a majority of the questions for the group. That can show intimidation. 

And in any situation, if you see someone who looks lost or scared or anxious, or even doesn’t seem to know how to operate, that could be a potential red flag. 

As part of your role as a USDOT Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking Research and Data Subcommittee Member, you recently went to Washington, D.C. to present research and data on human trafficking at a public DOT hearing. Can you share your findings and suggestions? 

KYS: One of my biggest suggestions was about multimodal transportation efforts. There are siloed efforts from different modalities but they are not connected to each other.  

I also mentioned that the 2026 World Cup and the 2028 Olympics are coming to North America, and we should prepare for those, since millions of people will be using various modes of transportation. Many people are going to fly in and use transit or Uber. We need to coordinate all of those agencies and industries together to be prepared and also respond when the time comes.

Before the Super Bowl in 2016 in California, Bay Area employees were trained about human trafficking. Based on that training, VTA personnel were able to notice and stop a child abduction. Transportation workers are the eyes and ears of society. So creating awareness with them helps with identification, prevention and interception of potential human trafficking crimes.

What are your biggest takeaways from your research?

KYS: We need multidisciplinary efforts. No one person or one industry or one commodity can combat it alone. It requires attention and collaboration and coordination from all, including the government. I feel extremely lucky that my voice is valued as a researcher. I think that’s the best way forward: to merge research and practitioner input together so we learn from each other.

And finally, what should you do if you think you see potential human trafficking?

KYS: We have to intervene safely – we should not be heroes. Most of us have good hearts and we want to help, but you need to think of the safety of that potential victim and also yourself and others around. So think of that first — you can call a national human trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733. If someone’s in immediate danger, you can call 911. 

Locally: If you’re on a VTA bus or train in the Bay Area, you can contact VTAlerts and submit an anonymous tip. And also keep in mind that transit employees in California are trained to help prevent human trafficking.

Also, for long-term help I strongly suggest reaching out to local groups (like the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking) that are working against human trafficking, because they’re the best option to learn what is going on in your community. 

Learn more about Yagci Sokat’s work and how you can help prevent human trafficking.