Elk River man to help free slaves


by Bob Grawey

Staff writer

At this very moment, an estimated 27 million people are enslaved throughout the world, including here in the United States, according to International Justice Mission (IJM), a human rights agency that works to rescue people from such situations.

That is more than the entire number of people forced into slavery from Africa during the colonial America era.

An IJM fact sheet states children under 18 years old make up between 40 to 50 percent of today’s slavery victims.

One Elk River man decided to do something to work at changing that atrocity.

Stephen Johansson

Stephen Johansson heard about IJM and its mission to free people during a benefit dinner while a freshman at Bethel University.

The political science/social studies education major was drawn to what the organization did to help correct the social injustices of human trafficking and other human rights violations.

After graduating in 2010, though, Johansson left for Bozeman, Mont. where he worked with AmeriCorps.

While there he was involved in community relations working on various projects in the community and developing training materials for new volunteers.

That turned out to be a training ground of sorts.

Now, on the cusp of another one-year commitment to IJM, Johansson will train for a week at the organization’s headquarters in Washington D.C. in mid September before moving to South Asia for his internship.

South Asia is one of the global hotbeds for human trafficking, both in sexual and forced labor bondage.

Johansson’s work will deal with the forced labor side of human trafficking.

For many, modern day slavery has no face; no image to connect it to the reality in the average person’s world. Yet, it is a reality that occurs every day for millions of children, women and men.

In many cases, poor people are approached and offered loans as small as $25 to help them out. All they have to do is work a little to pay it off at a job provided for them.

It sounds so easy.

Once accepting the loan, they are taken to the place where they are to work off this small debt. They soon find out, however, they are not allowed to leave the plant or factory, according to IJM documents.

Instead, these women and men are made to work as many as 18 hours a day and given just enough food and water to sustain them.

Men, akin to thugs, beat these people to break them and threaten to harm their families. Many are raped.

When the victims try to find out how close they are to having their debt paid off, they are lied to and charged exorbitant interest on the loan that makes paying it off impossible.

Children are often forced to work to help pay off the debt, becoming slaves themselves, some as young as eight years old.

IJM investigates leads where human trafficking is either reported or thought to be happening.

Once the organization determines a lead is legitimate, it partners with local authorities to free those enslaved.

A four-fold action plan unfolds.

1. Victim relief: IJM’s first priority is to free victims immediately from their bondage.

2. Perpetrator accountability: IJM works to make sure those guilty of enslaving others are brought to justice through the local authority.

3. Victim aftercare: IJM staff and local partners step in to make sure victims have money, that educational and medical needs are met and to get victims established in jobs and in a safe place to live.

4. Structural Transformation: IJM works with local police and other community stakeholders to keep human trafficking from  repeating itself.

That is where Johansson will be involved. He says he will be developing materials to train local police how to be more sensitive to victims’ needs and to know where to get resources to help them recover after being enslaved.

Helping victims and causing perpetrators to fear legal consequences are two of IJM’s goals.

“It’s a lot of evil,” Johansson says, “and I  get a chance to do something good about it.”

Asked if this could lead to a lifelong involvement in fighting human trafficking with IJM, Johansson smiles and says, “I’ll just have to find out what God wants. I just want to be open to what is in his heart for me.”