The recent conviction of an Ypsilanti man on charges of forced labor is a sobering reminder that human trafficking and modern-day slavery exist in our community. At the U.S. Attorney's Office, we hope that prosecutions like this one will raise awareness of this problem so that people will recognize the signs of this crime when they see them.
A jury in U.S. District Court in Detroit found Jean-Claude Toviave guilty of using force and threats of force to obtain domestic labor from four minors he brought to the United States from Togo in West Africa, using fraudulent immigration documents. The defendant falsely represented the victims to be his own children, enrolling them in school under false names and ages.
The case was brought to the attention of law enforcement by school officials, who alertly noticed signs that the children were malnourished and were being abused.
Like these four children from Togo, victims of human trafficking are often hiding in plain sight. Teenage runaways are forced into prostitution at truck stops. Immigrants are enticed to come to the United States with the promise of a better life, only to find themselves forced to work as prostitutes or domestic labororers. In one case prosecuted in this district, Eastern European women were lured to the United States with the promise of glamorous careers in modeling, only to find themselves forced to work as exotic dancers in strip clubs in metro Detroit.
How can this happen? Captors obtain compliance from their victims by using physical force and threats of reporting the victims' real or fabricated legal violations to the police. Captors also steal the victim's immigration documents, exploit language barriers and threaten harm to the victim's family members in the victim's home country. They use force, intimidation and shame to prevent their victims from seeking help.
Attorney General Eric Holder has pledged "zero tolerance" for human trafficking. Here in the Eastern District of Michigan, the U.S. Attorney's Office has launched the Human Trafficking Law Enforcement Working Group to share leads and provide training to law enforcement officers to recognize the signs that someone may be a victim of human trafficking. Through another group in which we participate, the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, we are working with social service providers to raise awareness of this crime. We are also working with advocacy groups, such as the University of Michigan Law School's Human Trafficking Clinic, to raise awareness of the protections available to victims who come forward to law enforcement.
Some signs for law enforcement officers and community members to look for when they encounter potential victims include:
- whether the victim has been deprived contact of family members, friends or members of the public;
- whether the victim has been beaten or deprived of sleep, food or medical care;
- whether the victim's identification and travel documents have been confiscated or are otherwise in someone else's possession;
- whether the victim's salary is being used to pay off a smuggling fee;
- and whether the victim lacks freedom to go where he or she chooses.
The sad reality is that criminals are all too ready to exploit vulnerable victims for commercial gain, whether these victims are teenage girls, recent immigrants, or school age children. Among these groups, human trafficking is regrettably alive and well. Will you know it when you see it?
More information is available at www.dhs.gov/human-trafficking-indicators.
Barbara L. McQuade
United States Attorney
Eastern District of Michigan