Terry economist works to unwind the shadow economy behind human trafficking

The UGA-based Center on Human Trafficking Research & Outreach (CenHTRO) pairs social work with economics to curb the impact of human trafficking
Illustration of hands cutting thorny vines away from a flower


  • Economist Laura Zimmermann is part of a UGA research team funded by the U.S. State Department studying ways to prevent widespread human trafficking in Malawi and Zambia.
  • The largest share of trafficking in Africa involves millions of people fleeing poverty for the promise of work and being exploited as laborers in another country.
  • Initially, Zimmermann’s work will develop better estimates of the situation on the ground and understanding the risk factors. The goal is to design economic interventions to increase access to assistance and improve digital and financial literacy of at-risk populations.

The U.S. Department of State estimates about 26.7 million people worldwide are caught in human trafficking situations, but no one knows how many victims there are.

But in her travels to some areas most impacted by human smuggling, University of Georgia economist Laura Zimmermann has met with local NGOs and international organizations who work on the prevention of trafficking and on helping survivors.

“I heard over and over again when we were in Malawi in January, ‘people just think this is normal, and this is part of the risk of migrating,’ ” Zimmermann said. “There’s a view amongst people who are immigrating that being stuck in a trafficking situation is pretty much your fault because you were not paying attention or because you were naive. So, we think this is vastly underreported.”

Zimmermann, an associate professor in the economics and international affairs departments, is part of an interdisciplinary team recently securing a $2.2 million U.S. State Department grant in 2022 to fight human trafficking in Malawi and Zambia.

The 2022 award broadens the work of the UGA-based Center on Human Trafficking Research & Outreach (CenHTRO), which previously received approximately $24 million from the State Department’s Office to Combat and Monitor Trafficking in Persons for its global counter-trafficking projects. CenHTRO is housed in the UGA School of Social Work and led by Professor David Okech.

As the economist on the team, Zimmermann’s charge is putting numbers to the situation. The first order of business is finding how many children and adults from the two countries have been victims of human trafficking and how many are at risk.

She travels to Malawi and Zambia during the summer to survey households in villages across the country to see if her team can gauge the scale of the problem and the factors driving young people to leave.

“The first goal is to try and get a sense through a large representative household survey of how prevalent this is?” Zimmermann said. “And then to also understand some of the risk factors. Is it a lack of awareness? Is it that people know this is kind of risky, but I’m so desperate I’m going anyway? Or are there particular demographic factors that make people more vulnerable — like leaving school early or being an orphan?”

Zimmermann, who considers herself a development economist, worked on several efforts evaluating the impact of international economic interventions or designing programs to alleviate dire poverty in the developing world.

In the United States, when people think about human trafficking, they most often think of cases involving sexual exploitation. But around the world, involuntary labor or domestic servitude makes up the bulk of the problem — about 17.3 million people.

These are situations where a person leaves their country for the promise of work (often domestic servant, farm worker or construction worker) and is subjected to exploitative or forced labor practices. Sometimes their pay is withheld; sometimes their passports are taken and they suffer physical abuse or inhumane working conditions, Zimmermann said.

Within those millions of cases, exploitative labor trafficking that occurs within the African continent is increasing and under-researched, said CenHTRO director Okech.

“Research and advocacy are more focused on the exploitation of Africans migrating to Europe from western Africa or labor trafficking victims from eastern Africa to the Middle East,” Okech added. “Many people migrate to southern Africa, specifically the country of South Africa, because of perceived opportunities in that country.”

Malawi is perennially one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Dire poverty and lack of opportunity in Zambia fueled outflows of young people.

“In one of the rural areas in Malawi that we’re going to survey is a district where everyone’s dream is to go to South Africa,” Zimmermann said. “We heard a lot of the same story from kids in middle and high school. When you ask them, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And they say, ‘I want to move to South Africa.’ It almost doesn’t matter what they will do there; they just want to make it.”

The COVID pandemic, which closed the South African border to legal paths to immigration, and the growing prevalence of cell phones in rural areas put these young people at greater risk of being exploited.

“Not only are your opportunities limited by COVID, but now you’re on Facebook for the first time — clicking on these employment ads. And these opportunities sound good, right? But you’re making yourself potentially vulnerable to new groups of perpetrators you wouldn’t ever have met face-to-face.”

Once individuals realize they’re in trouble, there is a stigma of being taken advantage of and a feeling of failing their community. It makes it hard for governments and advocacy groups to find the true number of human trafficking victims.

Zimmerman hopes to develop an idea of how many people were impacted and individuals’ awareness of human trafficking dangers.

Data produced by Zimmermann and the CenHTRO team informs a second phase that includes interventions to increase access to financial services and improve the digital and financial literacy of survivors and populations at risk of experiencing labor trafficking.

“The hope is that through all of this, through what we learn there, we will be able to develop an actual plan to try and reduce the vulnerability of these young people,” Zimmermann said.

André Gallant of the UGA-based Center on Human Trafficking Research & Outreach contributed to this story.