A Texas case involving the son of late Guinea President Ahmed Sekou Toure has put the spotlight on human trafficking for forced labor.
Mohamed Toure, 57, and his wife Denise Cros-Toure, 57, are under house arrest pending a court case for allegedly bringing a 5-year-old girl from Guinea and forcing her to work as an unpaid domestic helper and nanny for 16 years.
If convicted of forced labor, they could face up to 20 years in prison.
The couple, who also were ordered to turn over their passports, have denied the allegations and said the girl’s father sent her to be raised alongside the Toures’ children.
The Toures’ oldest daughter spoke in their defense at a recent court hearing, saying the girl was treated like family and was provided with food, clothes, spending money and Christmas presents.
The Department of Justice, which declined an interview request, said in a statement that the Toures brought the girl from her village in Guinea in 2000 to their home in Southlake, Texas, where she served as maid, gardener and nanny to the couple’s five children, starting at 6:30 or 7 a.m. and working until the children went to bed.
The girl told officials that she never was paid, was not allowed to go to school, was never taken to the doctor, and suffered beatings with a belt or electric cord and other physical abuse when Cros-Toure was dissatisfied with her work.
The government’s complaint against the Toures quoted the girl, who has been identified officially only as Jane Doe, as saying she was afraid to seek help because the Toures took her documentation, she had no money and she spoke little English.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram cited a police report from 2002 that said officers, responding to a report of a runaway, found her in a park and returned her to the Toure home. She escaped in 2016, partly with the help of neighbors.
The International Labor Organization estimates more than 40 million people are modern slaves around the world.
Karen Romero, director of training for Freedom Network USA, an anti-trafficking organization, says human trafficking is a bigger problem in the U.S. than most people know.
“It’s very underreported,” Romero told VOA’s English to Africa service in an interview. “We’re starting to become more aware. Some people are beginning to report more. But we still know that what we’re seeing reported is only a fraction of what’s out there.”
Some children are sold by their parents; others are runaways.
“So, we know traffickers will prey on the vulnerability of individuals … especially of individuals coming to the U.S. with promises of jobs, of promises of a better life,” Romero said. “We know in their home countries, they’re often fleeing violence, discrimination, poverty.
“There are different kinds of control that the traffickers utilize … oftentimes taking away their documentation, isolating them from not just their family but from their community. More often than not, they’re told that if they told anyone, no one would believe them.”