Muscatine Rotary Club hosts program on human trafficking

George Belitsos (center), Maggie Tinsman (second from top right), and Alka Khanolkar (top center) spoke about human trafficking at the Jan. 25 Muscatine Rotary Club meeting.

MUSCATINE, Iowa–As a fitting conclusion to Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month in January, the Muscatine Rotary Club held a virtual program on the topic Jan. 25. Speakers George Belitsos, founder of Youth Shelter Services in Ames and current chair of the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking and Slavery, Maggie Tinsman, a former Iowa State Senator who advocated for human trafficking legislation, and Rotary District 6000 President Elect Alka Khanolkar presented at the meeting.

In his years as an advocate for human trafficking survivors, Belitsos has found that human trafficking and slavery affect a staggering number of people both globally and regionally. According to the United Nations, 40.3 million people worldwide have fallen victim to human trafficking. In Iowa, the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking and Slavery estimates approximately 400 people experience human trafficking at any given time.

Currently, Belitsos finds that most people, especially children, fall victim of human traffickers through online interactions. Children, especially those who have experienced abuse, neglect, or homelessness, and have large periods of unsupervised internet time, meet potential traffickers through social media and multiplayer online games with chat functions. The traffickers then coerce their victims into meeting them in person, and manipulate them into committing prostitution or other illegal activities against their will. Because the pandemic has driven many activities online, the number of complaints of human traffickers targeting victims there has only increased. In the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a 90% increase in reports of child solicitation.

By his own calculations, Belitsos has found that less than 1% of human trafficking victims receive treatment for the trauma they experienced. A similarly small number of human traffickers get convicted.

Fortunately, advocates for stronger human trafficking laws and enforcement, like Tinsman, have seen progress. Since first learning about human trafficking at a State Department conference in 2005, Tinsman has striven for better human trafficking and prevention measures across the state. After educating fellow legislators about the prevalence of human trafficking in Iowa due to its easy interstate access, large rural areas to hide victims in, and attitude that human trafficking only happens in large urban areas, Tinsman cosponsored and unanimously passed the first law making human trafficking a felony in Iowa in 2006.

This legislation paved the way for other changes, including having a full time instructor at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy focused on teaching officers to identify and bust human trafficking rings and the passage of a law requiring state government officials to only stay at hotels were all staff members completed training on identifying and reporting suspected human trafficking. After leaving the senate, Tinsman founded Braking Traffik, an organization in the Quad Cities that works to end human trafficking in the region.

Belitsos, Tinsman, and Khanolkar also suggesed ways the Rotary Club could help encourage human trafficking awareness and prevention in Muscatine. These included providing National and Iowa Human Trafficking Hotline stickers in English and Spanish for businesses to display in their windows and working with groups like Braking Trafik to organize educational events for school district employees, parents, and children.