In The Fight Against Human Trafficking, Industrial Engineers Can HelpFebruary 25, 2019
An estimated 24.9 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking. The majority of these individuals are tricked, threatened, or coerced into forced labor in domestic work, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, the food industry, or other areas. Approximately one-fifth of them are forced into prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation. Although it’s notoriously difficult to track, the industry is thought to be worth $150 billion.
Fighting human trafficking is complicated. Traffickers tend to prey on marginalized communities, where people have fewer support systems. Many victims have been misled and are afraid to come forward, or may not fully understand their situation. And those individuals who are able to escape may struggle to find housing or employment as they re-enter society.
Kayse Lee Maass, an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern, believes engineers have tools that can help. The same techniques used to model supply chains or plan media campaigns can be adapted to find ways to disrupt trafficking networks or organize support services for survivors.
“We have different industrial engineering or operations research techniques that we can use,” Maass said. “They haven’t necessarily been applied to human trafficking, but could potentially be expanded to address those issues.”
Maass is collaborating with other engineers, as well as criminologists, public health professionals, sociologists, and human trafficking experts to determine how engineering-inspired modeling can be used to support ongoing efforts to combat trafficking.
She has formed partnerships both in the United States and abroad. With a group in Nepal, she is examining factors contributing to potential trafficking across the border with India. Closer to home, she is working with U.S. organizations to model the underground networks that traffickers use to exploit victims. These models could help organizations test different intervention efforts before putting them into place. She is also working to help survivors, using supply-chain models to determine where recovery services need to be built or improved.
Maass and her fellow engineers hope to provide mathematical tools that can help trafficking experts make the best possible decisions. But to do that, she needs to understand the nuances that those experts are considering and include these aspects in her models.
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