Human trafficking will take the spotlight again in a New Jersey courtroom this week, when a trial opens against a West African merchant accused of promising 20 or so girls from 10-19 years old better lives in the U.S., then forcing them into slavery in hair-braiding salons.
Voodoo curses and beatings kept the girls in line, resulting in “forced labor, control and intimidation,” federal prosecutors say.
Defense attorneys say the girls were paid and cared for as part of a tradition of West African families seeking better lives than they had. The catch is that the girls are from Togo, not exactly the poorest of West African countries.
Akouavi Kpade Afolabi’s ex-husband, Lassissi Afolabi, and son, Dereck Hounakey, have already pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit forced labor and agreed to testify against her.
Human trafficking has been particularly noticeable in densely populated New Jersey, where it’s easier to blend into neighborhoods where people pretty much mind their own business.
Amid the other crimes here, it’s received little publicity or attention, some critics say, because those charged are from other countries committing crimes against their own people.
The girls all obtained visas through a special U.S. Customs and Immigration lottery system.
Afolabi’s lawyer has said she taught them the time-consuming, costly West African craft of hair braiding, then brought them to the U.S. for opportunity in Newark and surrounding cities.
Federal prosecutors, in turn, say she fooled them with promises of schooling and other advantages but forced them into submission, snatching passports and other documents that would have allowed them freedom to move around the country.
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