ATLANTA -- Federal authorities are highlighting Atlanta's emergence as a hub in human trafficking along the East Coast as they try to raise awareness about the problem and generate tips from the public.
Human trafficking has been increasing in the Atlanta area and the crimes are often hard to uncover because many victims are reluctant to come forward, Brock Nicholson, acting head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for Georgia and the Carolinas, told The Associated Press Thursday.
"We're trying to get the word out to the public but specifically to what we believe are potential victims of human trafficking so hopefully we can get them or someone near them to come forward to be able to bring the tragedy of what's happening to light," he said.
Victims often fear beatings from traffickers or arrest and deportation by authorities if they try to escape, Nicholson said. He stressed that law enforcement will not punish or deport victims of human trafficking.
"Our primary focus is the victim," he said. "Our greatest concern is that of the victim, their physical and mental well-being."
Nicholson said he hopes that one reason more cases are surfacing now is because of increased law enforcement awareness of the problem. Because victims are so reluctant to come forward, it's hard to know how many cases of human trafficking there are, he said.
In fiscal year 2010, ICE initiated 651 human trafficking investigations, made 300 arrests, and secured 151 indictments and 144 convictions.
Two troubling new trends Nicholson identified are that victims are getting younger, some as young as 14, and traffickers are increasingly using violence to control their victims.
Atlanta has become a hub for human trafficking along the East Coast, Nicholson said. Many of the victims come from Mexico but also from other Central American countries, as well as India, eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.
Victims of human trafficking may either be brought to the U.S. against their will or may be lured here under false pretenses, Nicholson said. They are then forced into prostitution, unpaid or poorly paid agricultural or manufacturing work or indentured servitude.
In Atlanta, the most common cases are young Mexican women who are brought here and forced to work as prostitutes.
The Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE, has designated January "human trafficking awareness month." The goal is to educate people about the severity of the problem and to urge people to call a tip line if they see anything suspicious.
Nicholson said some signs the public can look out for are: houses with bars on the windows; different people constantly entering and leaving a residence; many young women entering and leaving a residence; and foreign workers who seem terrified to speak to anyone other than their employer.
ICE works closely with the FBI and state and local authorities on human trafficking. Federal authorities are working to educate state and local law enforcement agents about the signs of human trafficking so they can identify victims more easily.