January is National Human Trafficking and Slavery Prevention Month in the United States. In light of this, I thought it would be good to provide some additional information on what trafficking is.
What comes to mind when you hear the word "traffic?" Probably the highways on the way to your place of employment. And that would be a good start to understanding the meaning of the term "human trafficking." The word trafficking literally means the transportation of goods, and the common usage is typically for items which are intended to be used or sold illegally, although the word can also be used to describe legal trade or general commerce. For example, when someone smuggles guns into another country, we call that weapons trafficking, or when organizations transport drugs from a farm to a place of distribution, we call that drug trafficking. In the case of human trafficking, the language refers to the illicit transportation of people, and in the context of the modern day abolitionist movement, the trafficking being referred to is for the purposes of forced labor, sexual exploitation, or any other form of bondage. In other words, human trafficking is modern day slavery.
In recent years, the word trafficking has also been used to describe any form of slave-based commerce, even if it does not involve "moving people," including any child in the commercial sex industry. For example, in Cambodia, some children have been kidnapped or purchased from other countries (like Vietnam) to be prostituted for sex with pedophiles. Yet in many other cases, parents sell their children locally for sex on a nightly basis. In the case of the former, these children have been literally "trafficked" over a border, and in the latter case, these children remain local and may even go home to their families during non-working hours, but the term "child sex trafficking" is applied to them, as well, since they do not have the autonomy to make the decision not to engage in commercial sex work. For more information on child sex trafficking in Cambodia, visit www.agapewebsite.org, or read about my trip to Cambodia this summer here and here.
Adult men and women can also be forced into prostitution. For example, in Eastern Europe, one common tactic is for traffickers to recruit women for employment as waitresses or hostesses in other countries, only to sell them to brothels upon their arrival in the destination country. They are either physically locked up or are kept in brothels through other coercive means. These women are forced to perform sex work until they can pay off their travel and housing expenses, or are not given a future "out" at all.
Human trafficking occurs not only in the form of forced prostitution, however, but also in forced labor. For example, families may migrate from a poor rural area in search of employment and end up working in a factory under dangerous and threatening conditions. One way this can occur is through bonded labor, when families borrow money from a factory owner for initial expenses or food, but the system is set up such that their wages will never be enough to pay back the money owed, and they are therefore never able to leave. Often, the working conditions, hours worked, etc. are extremely unhealthy, and there may be a threat of violence if they try to escape. Some of the workers may be children.
|Calimlim home, valued at $1.2M|
This can also occur with domestic or farm labor. A young man or woman may be promised a job on a farm, cleaning a home, or watching a family's children, but upon arrival, may be forced to work without pay and under the threat of violence. If they have been taken to work in another country, their passports will usually be held by their captors. With the threat of violence, no money, no identification, no network of friends or family, the threat of jail and deportation upon escape (whether real or made up by their employers), perhaps even little knowledge of their location or the native language, they are held in bondage. In 2009, for example, a Wisconsin husband and wife, both of whom were medical doctors, were prosecuted for bringing nineteen-year-old Erma Martinez to the United States from the Philippines in 1985 and forcing her to work in their home for years. According to the Department of Justice, "The victim testified that for nineteen years, she was hidden in the Calimlim's home, forbidden from going outside and told that she would be arrested, imprisoned and deported if she was discovered."
Many countries have laws against human trafficking and slavery, yet little enforcement. Consider the dysfunction in the enforcement of even simple laws in some countries or cities. Have you ever driven in a city where there is no one enforcing driving laws, such that cars careen through intersections and veer in and out of lanes in a haphazard way? Similarly, in some places, there are often few, if any, officers enforcing human trafficking laws, or there may be corruption and bribes hindering the enforcement.
Trafficking is not something that occurs exclusively in foreign countries, however, as evidenced by the story of domestic servitude above. Nearby my own place of residence, San Francisco is considered one of the largest centers for sex trafficking in the world, with many massage parlors secretly operating as locales of forced prostitution. These businesses use a variety of methods to evade the law. Because trafficking is primarily "underground," it is unknown how many victims actually exist. According to a 2006 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Although it's not known how much money the San Francisco market generates for sex traffickers, federal agents confiscated $2 million in cash from 10 Asian massage parlors during a San Francisco raid in summer 2005."
Here is another excerpt from the 2006 article. (Note that these specific facts may be different by 2013, but this gives you an idea of the scope of the problem):
There are at least 90 massage parlors in San Francisco where sex is for sale, according to the online sex Web site myredbook.com. The site has been around since 1997 and has more than 55,000 reviews of Northern California sex workers. It is used by johns, yet is also a main monitoring tool for law enforcement. On average, there are about eight women working in a massage parlor, police say. That would mean more than 700 Asian sex masseuses working in San Francisco, based on 90 illicit parlors listed on sex Web sites and on police interviews.
But the scope of sex trafficking in San Francisco is much larger -- women are also forced to work as escorts, outcall girls, erotic dancers and street prostitutes. Women are also placed in "AAMPs" -- Asian apartment massage parlors -- which are little more than apartments rented by traffickers who staff them with one or two sex workers. Business is done by word of mouth, and only customers approved by the owner are allowed in.
Police in Livermore, Concord, San Mateo and Santa Clara have all found residential Asian brothels in their neighborhoods in 2004 and 2005.
One of the difficulties is that a brothel cannot be shut down unless money is proven to have changed hands for sex services, which may be difficult to show. Even the simple fact that someone is seen by an undercover officer in the middle of performing a sex act is not enough to demonstrate a commercial exchange. The massage parlor can be cited for other infractions, such as providing housing in a commercial building or inadequate ventilation, but that is only a short deterrent. Furthermore, it is difficult to prosecute traffickers, because women are often told by their captors that they will go to jail for confessing to prostitution (even forced prostitution) or for being in the country illegally. Sometimes the doors are not even technically "locked," but the threat of violence is so severe that women feel they have no choice but to stay. Jurors may have trouble understanding why a woman did not just walk out. Women are often too afraid of their traffickers to testify, and indeed, some who have testified in the past have disappeared, had their families threatened, or been maimed at a later time. Many of these "massage parlors" end up paying trivial fines for trivial violations and continue running.
One of the more detailed accounts I have read regarding this issue is the four-part series/special report, "Diary of a Sex Slave" in the San Francisco Chronicle. The first part of the report is the article quoted above. The full series details the increase in trafficking in the Bay Area and the specific account of a South Korean college student, You Mi Kim, who was trafficked to San Francisco and forced into sex work. If you have time, I would highly recommend reading parts one, two, three, and four. They are challenging readings and complicated by You Mi Kim's culpability in her initial financial difficulties from credit card debt, but the deception that led her to originally believe she would be working in a non-sexual industry represents the harsh reality for millions of people worldwide.
I believe that human trafficking is a true public health crisis affecting nearly every part of the world. I discussed a couple of ways to get involved in my previous posts about International Justice Mission's "Freedom Commons." See those posts here and here. For other ways to make a difference in the fight against trafficking and for more information on trafficking resources in your specific state, check out The Polaris Project.