Students Devote Their Summer to Combating Human Trafficking in Brazil

Students Devote Their Summer to Combating Human Trafficking in Brazil

Three Stanford students spend their summer in Brazil with Stanford faculty and researchers, all of whom are members of the Stanford Human Trafficking Data Lab.
Stanford Students-Brazil Brazilian lab partner Dayana Coelho and Stanford students (from left) Sierra Wells, Thay Graciano and Sofia Penglase.

Three Stanford students were witness to some real-world problems behind their textbooks and lectures this summer, working with anti-trafficking advocates of the more than 1 million people held in conditions of modern slavery in Brazil.

They expanded an anti-trafficking database that monitors and helps those who have come out of forced labor in Latin America’s largest country. One of them traveled to the nation’s capital to present their work to federal officials; they visited small towns to meet with case workers and better understand the basic needs and future ambitions of trafficking survivors.

“I think that too often university research can become detached from the communities and problems that are the focus of study, which is why I appreciate the trafficking lab supporting these frequently overlooked communities and really trying to understand and address their needs,” said Sofia Penglase, a rising junior with a double major in public policy and feminist, gender and sexuality studies, and a minor in human rights. 

She and her classmates spoke to me via a recent Zoom call during their final week in São Luís, the capital of the northeastern state of Maranhão.

Working alongside Stanford faculty and researchers who are members of the Stanford Human Trafficking Data Lab, the students are part of a multidisciplinary team trying to find and then help thousands of mostly men working in isolated labor camps that are turning Amazonian trees into charcoal. The men are exposed to toxic smoke and chemicals that can lead to severe respiratory diseases.

“Our group is working very hard towards the goal of detecting a large number of previously missed instances of labor trafficking so that Brazilian authorities can pursue them,” said Grant Miller, PhD, a health and development economist whose mission is to improve the health in developing countries and who heads up the trafficking lab. “But we’re also focusing on ways that the existing infrastructure for survivor support can be improved, connecting survivors for many public benefits for which they may be eligible, and deepening the follow-up support they receive from local social workers where they live.”

Trafficking Database

Brazil is a hub for sex trafficking and forced labor, with more than 1 million people being forced to work in inhumane conditions on any given day, according to the latest figures by the international human rights organization, Walk Free, and the U.N. International Labour Organization. The country was the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery and trafficking survivors today are disproportionately from states with large Afro-Brazilian and indigenous populations.

The social safety net and rescue protocols for those who have been released or rescued from trafficking currently only provide three months of unemployment insurance. There is little follow-up or a coordinated effort to monitor services and reintegration into society.

“Most of the people just kind of get lost in the system,” said Kimberly Babiarz, PhD, a social science research scholar at Stanford Health Policy and senior analyst for the lab’s research initiatives. “The case management system provides a standardized way of assessing their needs, tracking their employment outcomes and whether they’re gotten into social safety-net programs.” 

While Miller and other faculty members of the data trafficking lab made trips to potential trafficking sites over the summer, the students remained in São Luís working with the state Institute for Decent Work. They took stacks of disparate case files, feeding them into a new case management database known as Integra, which was created by Luis Fabiano de Assis, PhD, an affiliate scholar at the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Stanford, and a computer scientist and prosecutor with the Federal Labor Prosecution Office.

The Stanford students were trained on how to fill out the new Integra form, drafted by Stanford data lab analysts using clinically validated mental health questions to help social workers and federal officials better understand the long-term impacts of trafficking. The questionnaire also identifies their health conditions and key vulnerabilities—such as being pulled back into forced labor due to lack of employment—as well as their personal ambitions. The team believes this new clearinghouse for Maranhão’s 217 municipalities will eventually be taken nationwide.


Stanford Students in Brazil on anti-trafficking project
Stanford students with their Brazilian colleagues working on trafficking survivor database.

Policy in Action

Brazil is working on its third national anti-trafficking plan and the one of the students, Thay Graciano, traveled to Brasília to share the students’ research project with federal officials on the National Commission on the Eradication of Slave Work and in other ministries. She not only met with social workers and civil society organizations, but police chiefs, representatives of the Justice Department and Human Rights Ministry and labor unions.

“Policymaking was happening right in front of my eyes,” said Graciano, a Knight-Hennessy scholar beginning her second year of a master’s degree in international policy and a PhD in political communications. “Just being here actually makes you understand what it is that makes policy work—or not. Sometimes it's a bug in the data input; sometimes it's that small fix that can lead to big things. I read about policy, but here I'm actually getting to see policy in action and what can make it work.”

Graciano said the work has been particularly meaningful to her as she is from Brazil and is passionate about human rights. In her blog, Graciano wrote about the anonymous tips received by state anti-trafficking officials. 

“Often workers are found sleeping on makeshift beds, lacking access to clean water and toilets,” she wrote. “Workers are also frequently informed by their bosses that they owe money for transportation, protective gear, and even food—items that are legally required to be provided for free. As a result, she said, workers become trapped in an endless debt cycle.” 

Sierra Wells—who just graduated with a major in international relations and minoring in data science—said that getting off campus and out in the field has allowed her to see the real people behind her policy studies.

“The one thing I've really learned this summer is that working with some of the social workers and people who work in human rights here, I've come to appreciate their really deep, deep knowledge about the issue,” said Wells. “I think academia can be kind of dismissive of that, so I’m glad that the lab incorporates working with the social workers as we gain so much perspective from people working on the ground.” 

Penglase said the summer experience has taught her she needs to use her Stanford University education not only to further her own opportunities and ambitions, but those of underserved communities similar to those of the dedicated case workers and officials she has met in Brazil.

“I think being here has reminded me that Stanford is not just an opportunity, but also an obligation,” Penglase said. “What people here would give to be somewhere like Stanford; I have an obligation to use my education not just for my own opportunities, but for others.” 

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