GAINESVILLE - The issue of human trafficking continues to draw attention across the world with the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls in Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram in recent days. In our own state, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation recently issued survey results on Georgia law enforcement's awareness of and involvement in human trafficking investigations.
The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council also released a study on services for human trafficking victims in Georgia.
On Tuesday, a group of those committed to fighting the issue held a roundtable discussion in Gainesville.
A big part of that work is Rahab's Rope, a ministry with three locations on the front lines of human trafficking in India. The ministry funds 55 percent of its work through the sale of gift items at a store in downtown Gainesville, at conferences it hosts and through the mail.
Many of those items are made by women being educated through the ministry in India.
Laura Hamilton attended Tuesday's roundtable. She serves the mission in Mumbai, where volunteers visit a brothel five days a week, providing basic education, sharing a faith in Christ message and building relationships with women who have no hope.
The people who hold the woman against their will in the sex trade actually welcome the Rahab's Rope volunteers in Mumbai.
"It's been one of the most surprising things I think about working there is that those madams, controllers, brothel owners have been one of our biggest open doors into the area," Hamilton said.
"We just take an approach where we try to be available to everyone and just take kind of a non-judge mental approach towards them. We've just come in and tried to get to know them as individuals and as people," Hamilton added.
She said volunteers have found that a lot of those in power in the brothels have been in sex trade for most of their lives.
"A lot of the women, especially the madams, were trafficked themselves as 13-14 year-old girls, so this is the only life they've ever known, Hamilton said.
Asked if she feared for her life or safety in her mission work, Hamilton said the women they minister to actually look out for their safety.
"There were some scary days, (early in the ministry) but for the most part, I feel like I'm where the Lord has called me to be, and that to me is the safest place to be."
Mike Queen also spoke on the human trafficking issue at the roundtable. The Sgt. in the Hall County Correctional Institute and former Department of Natural Resources Ranger said he saw a video on the issue and was deeply moved.
"He (God) moved on me to do something locally and partner with some ministries right here locally. He's took me a long way so far and (I'm) hoping to go further," Queen said.
Among other efforts, Queen has taken something he knows well, handgun training, and parlayed into a way for him to raise money and awareness of ministries that combat human trafficking.
"A lot of times I don't think God wants us to be something that we're not, but He wants you to take what's your God-given talent and use it to help people," Queen said.
He donates 20 percent of what he takes in from his handgun training events and classes to organizations who fight human trafficking.
Following the roundtable discussion, Rahab's Rope officials showed off their new store space. The ministry purchased the old Burton's store on the Gainesville Square. The move from its leased storefront on the opposite side of the square will give the retail operation and ministry 5500 square feet of space per floor. Organizers hope to have a soft opening at the end of June.
In addition to more space, Vicki Moore, ministry founder and CEO said their work locally is expanding. That focus is on students.
"We see our part as again education and awareness, which is a lot of what we've always done, but being able to do that with students locally in the community," Moore said.
"The number for the state of Georgia that a girl is tricked or forced into prostitution is 13-years-old. Just from that one number, we know how unaware and unassuming that these young girls are that they're tricked and forced into that," Moore added.
Rahab's Rope officials have already worked in some local schools and hope to expand that number.
Ninth District Congressman Doug Collins attended the roundtable in preparation for some bills related to the subject, possibly coming next week on the House floor. The three bills have been passed out the judiciary committee, which Collins serves on.
"They basically deal with sort of cutting off all of the avenues," Collins said.
He said it includes advertising revenues for trafficking, including online aspects of how the controllers recruit and market victims. The bills also deal with issues of safe harbor for victims, so they don't get caught up in the criminal system.
"It's going to be a very big issue on the House floor, and we look forward to the Senate taking those up as well."
Human trafficking continues to get coverage across the U.S. Collins also urged those at Tuesday's roundtable to utilize local and Atlanta media, as the bills hit the House floor, in order to raise awareness.