The University of Central Florida has established a new Center for the Study of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery to proactively address the growing human-trafficking problem that communities face in Central Florida, the United States and around the world.

One of the largest criminal enterprises, human trafficking keeps as many as 40 million people in forced servitude of various types, including agricultural, factory, household and sex-industry slavery.

Florida ranks as a key entry point for slaves being transported into the United States from other countries and has increasingly become a hotbed for trafficking of U.S. citizens. The state is third in the nation for human-trafficking cases, and Orlando has one of the highest rates for reporting crimes to the national human-trafficking hotline.

UCF’s center, housed in the College of Sciences, will seek to expand the understanding of human trafficking in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary context, and search for solutions to the problem through education, training, research, student fellowships, survivor scholarships and community engagement.

Michael Johnson, dean of the College of Sciences, pointed out that understanding the concealed world of human trafficking is essential if we are to combat it effectively.

“This Center gives UCF the opportunity and responsibility to deepen that understanding,” Johnson said.

The center will be directed on an interim basis by John C. Bersia, who will also co-chair its advisory board. He started the first UCF initiative on this subject in 2003, which became the Human Trafficking Awareness Program seven years ago. It will be incorporated into the new center.

Bersia teaches courses on and writes about human trafficking, and frequently hosts shows on the topic for WUCF TV. He also serves as special assistant to the president for Global Perspectives at UCF.

“From the time human trafficking drew my attention in the early 1990s, my focus has been on the future, specifically the steps that could be taken to address and correct this crime against humanity. This direction is exactly what UCF has planned for the new center,” Bersia said.

Synergy Will Help Drive Initiative

The center will take advantage of the synergies that derive from other programs at UCF with overlapping or complementary interests. Toward that end, Alisa Smith–who chairs the Department of Legal Studies and participates in the recently established Violence Against Women Research Cluster at UCF–will serve as interim co-director of the center and as a member of its advisory board. “The new center and the cluster are well-suited to bring awareness and interdisciplinary insight to the often-secretive problem of human trafficking,” Smith said.

Today, with the marshaling of more resources to confront human trafficking at the local, state, national and international levels, opportunity knocks, Bersia said.

“The center is in a special position to help lead the effort to find solutions because of the generous assistance of supporters; its collaboration with UCF faculty who share a commitment to the issue; and strong partners, including the Central Florida community, leading abolitionists, survivors and scholars from around the world,” he said.

Voices of Encouragement

The center counts among its top supporters David Boone, an Atlanta-based attorney and founder of Civil Lawyers Against World Sex-Slavery (CLAWS). Boone, a UCF graduate, said he welcomes UCF’s new center.

“Strengthening education and training related to the scourge of human trafficking and contemporary slavery is one of the best ways to combat it,” he said. Boone underscored his hope that the center would comprehensively endeavor to build awareness, inform, conduct solutions-oriented research, alert potential victims to the dangers posed by traffickers–especially via the internet and social media–and assist survivors.

“With a concerted effort, we can control and eventually subdue this terrible injustice,” Boone said. The CLAWS organization has opened a program office at UCF to provide assistance to the center.

More than two years ago, Boone joined with The Burnett Honors College, the Global Perspectives Office and others to launch a UCF community-focused working group on human trafficking. It was designed to expand communication with organizations and individuals in Central Florida that deal with human trafficking. Equally important, UCF has sought the group’s advice in contemplating potential next steps for related studies and activities at the university. Those conversations helped point the way to the center.

Establishment of Center is ‘Decisive Step’

To Harriet Elam-Thomas, a former U.S. ambassador to Senegal who directs Diplomacy Studies at UCF, the decision to create a center is visionary.

“We can neither offer solutions to challenges nor combat negative aspects of our societies if we are unaware they exist,” she said. “The establishment of the new center at UCF is a decisive step to counter this acknowledged blight on humankind. Awareness leads to questions, which will lead to investigations and certainly counter measures to end this deeply rooted scar on the social order.” Elam-Thomas personally witnessed the tragedy of human trafficking during her diplomatic career. At UCF in 2003 she also chaired one of the first U.S. academic conferences on human trafficking, and will serve on the center’s advisory board.

Richard Lapchick, chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at UCF, said the center’s announcement “is one more reason for my incredible pride in UCF. We have officially become one of the few academic institutions addressing one of the world‘s worst human-rights situations–human trafficking and modern-day slavery.”

He added that UCF will not only teach about it and do research on it, but also will be an advocate to stop it and become part of the solution. Lapchick helps lead the National Consortium for Academics and Sports’ “Shut Out Trafficking” campaign to combat human trafficking, with programs on multiple college and university campuses. He will also serve on the center’s advisory board.

M.C. Santana, director of Women’s and Gender Studies at UCF, praised the center’s plans to take a special interest in the victims and survivors of human trafficking, a focus she called pivotal.

“As a gender expert and educator, I can’t deny the gravity of the fact that women and children are the vast majority of victims and survivors of human trafficking,” she said. “Aiming to provide survivors with scholarships to better their lives is critical.” Santana, who has been committed to creating awareness of and studying human trafficking for many years, sees the center as “a bold move from a university invested in the Central Florida community and beyond.” She will serve on the Center’s advisory board.

Advisor to Board Spent 10 Years as Slave

Francis Bok, the author of what many consider to be the first contemporary slave narrative, Escape from Slavery, spent 10 years as a child slave in Sudan. He has advised UCF on human-trafficking matters for several years and will continue his contributions as a member of the center’s advisory board. Bok said his appreciation for the new center “comes from a difficult place that I–as a survivor of slavery–am uniquely qualified to understand. A deeper understanding of human trafficking and modern-day slavery is essential to mounting a proper offensive against it.”

He added that society needs to confront, slow and eventually eradicate this horror that afflicts humankind. His greatest concern is for the “millions of people who are suffering from forced servitude in Orlando, the rest of the United States and around the world, often unseen, under our very noses.” UCF’s new center can help us lead in that direction, Bok said.

That is precisely the hope of Kevin Bales, professor of contemporary slavery and research director of the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, England. Bales, one of world’s foremost scholars on modern-day slavery, has been involved with human-trafficking discussions at UCF for more than a decade. He will serve as a senior advisor for the center, as well as a member of its advisory board.

Bales views slavery as a threat to our world–to human rights, to economies, and because terrorist groups engage in trafficking and use slavery as a weapon, to security.

“Our response to this threat has been reactive, piecemeal and relatively ineffective–until now,” Bales said. He emphasized that “joined-up thinking, scientific analysis, and deep monitoring and evaluation are all needed to build a coherent and powerful response to trafficking and slavery, and that is exactly the aim of the center.”

Further, he indicated that the center will have the international reach to build powerful partnerships, just as it is already making the most of multi-disciplinary synergies across UCF.

“It takes more than passion and money to bring slavery to an end; this insidious crime has to be dissected, analyzed and thought out of existence, precisely what the center is designed to do,” Bales said.

‘UCF is Leading the Fight Against Modern Slavery’

All of those points resonate with Luis C.deBaca, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. C.deBaca visited UCF last week to address the issue of human trafficking as a major part of transatlantic security and relations.

“By creating this center to confront human trafficking, UCF is leading the fight against modern slavery. It is inspiring to see such leadership and innovation,” C.deBaca said. He will serve on the center’s advisory board.

Jolene Morris, a junior at UCF and the current Francis Bok Human Trafficking Awareness Fellow, is conducting research this semester on different forms of human trafficking and modern slavery.

“As a young child, I witnessed human trafficking in Jamaica, though only realized it later in life,” she said. “I’ve always felt deeply about shining a light on this injustice, and my fellowship through UCF’s Human Trafficking Awareness Program has given me that opportunity. The creation of the center shows that UCF wants to expand those opportunities to other students and extend its impact. I am so proud to be a Knight!”


For other recent stories on this topic, click to read what UCF faculty and alumni are doing about the human-trafficking epidemic and how to Identify a victim.