Voices of Survivors

No one can tell the story of human trafficking better than a survivor can. Please do yourself and these human beings a favor and spend a few minutes listening to their voices.

 

Thank you CAST LA for the incredible work you do.

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Human Rights vs. Direct Needs

“And everyone kept talking about following international conventions and respecting human rights. But no one could tell me where the woman was going to sleep while were so busy defending her rights.”
–“Slave Hunter” by Aaron Cohen

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Ever since reading this line, it has been reverberating in my mind. Sometimes, it is so easy to get caught up in the intellectual analyzation of human rights issues that the people become no longer the point. In the Dominican Republic, Aaron Cohen was able to free a girl, but then had no where to place her but a Catholic convent in the countryside. As a city girl who has worked some of the most high class Japanese clubs, this did not feel like freedom… but it was better than the brothel she was in, I suppose. While there is political action in place and training of law enforcement, there also need to be safe-houses and rehabilitation. There needs to be job training and counseling. Social justice is a powerful tool, but cannot happen in the absence of people’s basic needs being met. We cannot forget that there are people each and every day who go to sleep each night, knowing that a never-ending pattern of abuse and humiliation is all that stretches before them. We cannot forget the girl who wakes up in the morning, realizing that all she has to face is one more day of being raped by strangers. We cannot forget the man who will be bent in half, picking cotton, knowing that it is unjust that he is not being paid, but not having the language or knowledge of the law to back him up. Human trafficking is not just a criminal industry. It is not just a political problem. It is not just an issue of supply chains and societally constructed norms of desire and fulfillment. It is an issue of individuals… of individuals who need to be protected and freed.

 

On Domestic Servitude, the Inescapability of Death, and Visa Manipulation

Last week, I attended a conference put on by the Catholic Network to End Human Trafficking. As always, I was exposed to new horrific realities which I wish to pass on.

 

1. DOMESTIC SERVITUDE

One of the concepts that felt substantially new to me was that of domestic servitude. I know about it as a manifestation of human trafficking, yet I have never been more exposed to the stories of those affected by it as I was today.

In the privacy of the home, family members are exploiting their own family members. A FIlipina woman was always a generous host to her sister and niece whenever they visited her back home in the Philippines. She would cook and clean for them, honoring them with traditional hospitality. When they offered to bring her over to the US, she agreed. They gave her another person’s visa, and instructed her to push a man’s wheelchair through security at the airport and not say a word. Once she arrived in their home, she was forced to work 24/7. She did all of their family chores, cooked, cleaned, tended to the children, whether her relatives were home or not. They kept her up until 2 AM, commanding her to massage each family member to sleep. A few months in, they demanded $10,000 to pay off the debt of the visa the had gotten her. Moneyless, she had to start working to raise the money. When she was finally able to pay it off, they raised the rate to $27,000, telling her it was a bargain, for the normal charge was $30,000. Soon after, she was brought to an elder care facility and forced to work and live there.

What can be done about a situation like this? There is such a grey area between someone who is simply caring for her family, and someone who is being held a slave. How was she to know that they were manipulating her? How was an outsider supposed to see that she was being coerced and toiled with? And to prosecute, witnesses are required. Who is going to testify against his or her own family members? It becomes a he-said-she-said situation, convoluted and usually too complicated to successfully punish the perpetrator. When human trafficking occurs behind the closed doors of someones’ home, detection is close to impossible.

People are also often lured by recruiters in their home country. They trust people who are from their same background– they speak the same language, share customs and beliefs, and have no reason to doubt their motives. In Egypt, a wealthy couple planned to moved to the US. They approached the parents of a destitute young girl, offering to take her abroad with them. They promised to give her a home, an education, food– a better life than the one she had. With no seeming alternative, her parents felt obligated to sell their daughter, thinking that it would benefit her. They sold her for $30. THAT is the price of a human being.

Once she arrived in the US, she was forced to sleep on a mattress on the cement floor of the couple’s basement in their extravagant new Malibu home. She was deprived of heating and cooling, and was only allowed to eat the leftovers of her masters’ meals. She did their chores, day in and day out. When she tried to wash her laundry along with theirs in their washing machine, she was beaten and told that she had to do her own washing in a tin bucket outside. This girl was stuck in domestic servitude from the age of nine until she was seventeen, when she was finally rescued by ICE  agents.

Some women are bought online as mail- order brides and literally shipped overseas to their awaiting husbands. They are degraded to the status of a package-  purchased, transported, and ripped open, to be used at the will of the recipient. Some girls and women are forced into arranged marriages, only to become the slaves of their new husbands and mothers in law. They are raped by whoever enters the house and wishes to take their turn.

One woman in the Bay Area was told that she was going to be given a job. She was dropped off at the house of a man in his 60s and essentially told that she was his slave. He asserted the utmost degree of coercive control upon her. He beat her, raped her, abused her mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. “The only thing I felt was fear,” she says, “fear all the time.”

One of the most prevalent myths about human trafficking is that it is an issue that rages solely overseas. It is very blatantly splashed across the pages of our seemingly easy West Coast world. There are slaves in our own backyards. They are in our neighbors homes. And most of us don’t see them.

 

2. DEATH

Most of the individual stories that we hear are those of girls who have escaped, of people who have found a way out. But those people are the exception. They are not the rule. When it comes to sexual trafficking in the US, the average entrance age is twelve years old. The life expectancy is seven years from that date. Seven years. Most of these girls endure the turmoil for seven years. And then they die. Death is the end of the story for most victims– not services, not rehabilitation, not freedom. Death. A client of Missy, an organization rescuing and rehabilitating children in Oakland, said “If I were not here because of Missy, I would be dead.” That is the reality. Humans are expendable. Children who have been trafficked by sales crews, forced into vans and dropped off at street corners to sell things from dawn until dark, have been found dead in overturned vans on the side of the road, abandoned by their perpetrators. When the traditional form of slavery was alive and well in the United States, slaves were regarded as valuable pieces of property. They may have been abused, but their masters recognized their worth- at least their economic worth. Modern day slavery has tainted even that conception. Humans are worth nothing. In Haiti, a young boy can be bought for less than $2. 60 an hour. And when humans are cheap, the next step is that they can be disposed of whenever their trafficker sees fit. Some are abandoned like the children in the vans. Others are killed. Still others are literally worked to their death.

 

3.  VISAS EXPLOITATION

 

We are trafficking and killing our own children. 72% of those trafficked in California are actually identified as US citizens. Yet, the other 28% are smuggled from abroad. Some come in legally or with fraudulent documents. Others are snuck in by way of the coasts

Visa exploitation is one of the most common methods of fraudulence used by traffickers. Many have recruiters in the home countries of victims who promise to pay the travel expenses to bring people over to the US. However, once they are here, their documents are taken, the agreed upon debts are skewed and the people are forced into harsh conditions of slavery. Some of the most commonly manipulated visas are the H-2A Certification, the JI Student Visa, and the R Visa. The H-2A Certification allows for employers to bring over an unlimited number of labor workers to work their agricultural fields if they “anticipate a shortage.” Many of these laborers are brought over and offered work, only to be abused, unpaid, and trapped. JI student visas are dangerous in a different sense. Student with these visas are typically impressionable, young, and want to earn money– making them a very at- risk population. Recently, a group of Chinese girls arrived in the San Jose airport with JI Student visas, claiming to be going to school on the East Coast. In actuality, they were driven to Fremont and sold into brothels. And the third, and possibly most dangerous visa is the R Visa. This is delegated to those traveling with religious organizations, yet can be exploited by traffickers. The R visa does not require worker compensation, it allows for housing and food to be provided as sufficient payment, and is the longest running visa– maxing out only after five years. For a nun traveling abroad for service work, this visa is ideal. For a girl from Vietnam who thinks she is being given a job in the United States, a visa like this can be used by a trafficker for extended entrapment.

 

I can only begin to touch upon the new trove of information I have been exposed to. It is as if every time I peek my head into the world of human trafficking, new horrors are unsheathed. Yet I hope to teach you. Together, we can fight this most atrocious crime.

 

A Word on Sexual Abuse

I know this is not exactly human trafficking, yet in some cases, trafficking is an extreme version, an extension, of sexual abuse. Across the world, girls and women, in particular (but boys as well) are abused– made to dress, touch, suck, perform, and surrender– in ways that no one deserves to be treated. This is not an issue specific to a single population, it is not confined by race or socio-economic status or education. It is an issue that manages to transcend all boundaries.

According to RAINN (the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network) every 2 minutes, someone in the US is sexually assaulted. 54% of those assaults are never reported to police, and 97% of rapists never have to step foot in a jail. They never have to spend a single day, living with the consequences of their crime. Yet the survivors of assault — they live with the consequences every day.

These girls are among us. Some of them are us.

Project Unbreakable has risen up as an outlet for pain, and a blinding light of exposure to the pervasiveness of sexual assault. Their mission is to “increase awareness of the issues surrounding sexual assault and encourage the act of healing through art.” Since the project began in 2011, over 2000 photos have been collected, featuring victims of sexual abuse holding posters of quotes from their abusers.