Human Trafficking: A Form of Modern Slavery

Liz Chow, Award Winner 2006: Women, Sing Tao Daily (New York, NY) Posted: Nov 02, 2006

In 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, it stated, “all men are created equal.” Yet after 230 years of development, an alternative form of human slavery still exists.

In the 21 century, millions of people are smuggled to the United States. They are assaulted, coerced and helpless under the control of traffickers.

On June 3, 2006, the U.S. State Department released the annual Trafficking in Persons Report which says of the estimated 800,000 to 900,000 victims trafficked across international borders each year, approximately 18,000 to 20,000 were smuggled to the United States. The report says victims entered the country from Asia, Central America, Africa and Eastern Europe, and were forced into labor, sexual servitude and enslaved as domestic servants; some were even forced into criminal activities.

In sync with globalization, the rate of human trafficking has increased at a rapid pace, now one of the fastest growing criminal activities in the world, with an estimated $10 billion trading hands.

According to the report, more than 600,000 victims are women and girls, and sex trafficking earns $7 billion annually for organized human trafficking groups.

Some women leave their developing countries, seeking to improve their lives through jobs in more prosperous countries. Some rural families sell their daughters, while some girls are kidnapped and are forced into sex slavery until ransoms have been paid.

Many female victims are underage and forced to prostitute themselves on the street or at illegal brothels. Arrangements are made by middlemen for women to leave from New York to travel to Atlantic City, Boston, and Philadelphia for sexual servitude. Women are also sent to massage parlors, spas, strip clubs and night clubs, initially being asked to perform on stage and later exploited sexually.

The victims often think of escaping, but worry their families will be harmed by the traffickers who often know where the families live.

Some victims are forced to have sex with 10 to 20 clients a day. On average they have intercourse with two men every hour. If they get pregnant, they will be forced to have an abortion. Those who contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases will be further abandoned by society.

Victims forced to be sex slaves but too scared to ask for help

The Asian American Women’s Center (AAWC) has received numerous phone calls from victims of sex trafficking. When speaking on the phone, their voices are often trembling and filled with fear. They whisper and say, “Save me…” But the victims cannot provide much information because they do not even know where they are.

Li An Qi, director of AAWC says, “The women are tricked into coming to the United States, once they arrive here their passports are be taken away. They will be locked in a remote and secret place, and forced to do the assigned job.”

In China, some women after hearing many grandiose stories about the United States from their friends and relatives, long to come. It is not hard to find newspaper ads offering $5,000 to work in a hotel.

These women believe the ads, hoping that jobs in hotels will provide them with better lives. After going through one or two rounds of interviews, or through the arrangement of friends and relatives, these women leave for the United States with work visas. Unfortunately, this is a trap.

Li says, “$5,000 per month will not be a hotel job. Everyday they will be forced to have sex with up to 30 men a day. If they do not service enough clients, money will be deducted from the salary.”

Li says, the money they earn is used for paying bills, food, clothing, medicine, and also for repaying the huge amount of debt they “owe” for the trip to the United States, which can go up to $300,000.

Li says while most illegal immigrants are free to change job or choose a cheaper place to live in order to save up more for their families in China, victims of human trafficking can not; they lead a life of slavery with no choice, no freedom and no human rights.

“Some women call for help, but the line gets cut off after a few sentences are spoken. They worry that once discovered, they will be beaten, sexually abused, and maybe putting their families in danger,” Li says.

Li says even if they are arrested by police, they still did not dare to tell the truth for feat that the other women will suffer. They often end up saying that they willingly prostituted themselves.

Natalia Gianella of The Door, a youth service center, says the youngest victim to contact them was 11 years old. She was brought to the United States as a child laborer but was sexually abused. She had called the center for help but feared repercussions and stopped calling. The center has since lost contact with her.

These victims are forced to prostitute themselves everyday. They have lost their self-esteem, and see themselves as dirty and low, which make them depressed or even suicidal. They despair in the belief that they are instruments for men to let out their anger. This thinking becomes a life-long psychological burden, and something that they can never get rid of for the rest of their life.

According to a detective of the Vice Enforcement Division for the New York City Police Department, many women after arriving to the United States are made to work in massage parlors. A middleman will first convince them to masturbate their clients as an additional service to earn extra tips, and then he will get them to do “a full service.” He will tell them that, “This doesn’t matter. The society will only laugh at the poor not the prostitutes.” The detective says these women after doing it once would do it for the second and third time until they became numb.

Since these female victims are not familiar with the country, they are completely isolated from the outside world. They might get some information here and there from sympathetic clients. But even if they dare to try to escape they have no idea where to go. The irony is, everybody longs to come to the United States, but these women loose their freedom once they arrive here. It is only then that they realize freedom is priceless.

“If you don’t have money, we’ll gang-rape you.”

Sara (not her real name), 17, decided to leave rural Fujiang, China, three years ago to be smuggled to the United States.

When asked over the phone what happened the first day she arrived the country, Sara’s voice trembled and she started to cry. What happened three years ago still brings fear. She pauses for a few minutes and says, “They locked me in a basement and beat me.”

In the basement, she was stripped, tied and assaulted by three strong men.

Sara is the only child of a rural family in Fujian. Her parents put all their hope on her, hoping that she will study as only education can change one’s fate. Three years ago, Sara’s friend told her she could pay $20,000 to be smuggled to the US.

Sara says her friend told her that a job with at least $3,000 in monthly salary would be arranged for her once she had arrived the United States. The salary sounded attractive because it is equivalent to two or three years’ salary in China. Sara thought even if she worked without legal status, she would only have to endure it for a year before she would have enough to pay back the debt. A year later, she would only be 15, and then she could enroll in an American school.

At 14, she boarded a boat and headed to The United States. After four months of traveling, she was smuggled into New York City. Her smuggler, “Snakehead,” sold her to another group which kept her passport, locked her in a basement, beat her and told her to cough up more money. They told her she had to pay $80,000.

Sara says, “At that time I cried, why does $20,000 become $80,000?” They told her that if she did not produce the money she would be beaten to death. She was held at gunpoint and one of the men said, “If you don’t have the money, we’ll gang-rape you.” She cried. Those men stripped her and beat her. They called her parents, threatening to kill her if they didn’t pay the $80,000. Sara’s parents agreed and told her over the phone, “Just pay them. You are already there, we cannot do anything.”

Sara thought of escaping, but the door was guarded by two gangsters and one of them had a gun. Few days later, Sara was made to work in a take-out restaurant, washing dishes, and delivering take-out. She worked 14 hours a day, six days a week, every month she would send money home to her parents to pay back her debt to the smuggler.

Last year she read an article on human trafficking and saw a hot-line for aid in a Chinese newspaper, so she called Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). In six months, the Fund successfully applied fot legal status for Sara and also found an organization to give her protection.

After a three-year nightmare, Sara found what’s most valuable in life. She says, “I can see my parents very soon. I won’t be lonely anymore. I don’t have to cry anymore.”

Government organizations gradually pay attention to human trafficking

Human trafficking is the third largest transnational crime. In October 2002, New York City formed the Community Response to Trafficking task force, allying 22 governmental units, human rights organizations and social work agencies to provide assistance to victims and create a platform for an exchange of ideas.

Last year saw real results from the collaboration of the task force, proving that victims of human trafficking can be saved.

The Long Island police arrested a woman who had been trafficked there as a prostitute. The police transferred her case to a human rights organization that found her shelter with another center. A human rights lawyer has helped her apply for legal status.

Nevertheless, the number of victims in human trafficking has reached 20,000 per year, and the victims will not come out by themselves. Finding them poses the biggest challenge for police.

Many organizations have recently stepped up the publicity and increased the awareness of human trafficking in the community, encouraged people to report trafficking cases.

A few years ago, a group of 60 deaf and mute people, supervised by three large men, left the basement of a building in Queens every morning. After selling handicrafts in a subway station for 14 hours a day, they were sent back to the same place. Some neighbors found them suspicious and reported to the police. Because of this incident, the police was able to crack a big human trafficking case.

Victims of human trafficking do not have legal status in the United States. In the past, once arrested they would be considered illegal immigrants and be deported. That made it hard for the U.S. law enforcement to crack down on trafficking activities. In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which will grant victims of human trafficking T-visas, giving them legal status for three years. Once the visas expire, they can apply for green cards.

Ivy Suriyopa of AALEDF points out that human trafficking is illegal, but the victims are protected by law, whereas people who are smuggled here are not protected by law. The Act makes clear from the outset that the purpose of combating human trafficking is to ensure just and effective punishment of traffickers, to protect their victims, and to prevent trafficking from occurring.

Suriyopa says Congress set a quota of 5000 T-visas per year, but because victims worried about having their status exposed, putting themselves in danger, they did not dare to seek help. For those who did seek help, they ended up dropping the visa application because they were scared of cooperating with law enforcement to file a report against the traffickers. As of March 14, 2006, the US government has only given out 620 T-visas.

NYPD’s new plan to tackle human trafficking

New York City is seen as the final destination of human trafficking activities. John F. Kennedy Airport is listed as one of the top five airports where victims enter the country. The FBI, NYPD and New York State Organized Crime Task Force have stepped up their efforts in cracking down on transnational trafficking.

A detective in Vice Enforcement explains how the NYPD formed an Anti-human Trafficking Unit. Six police officers were trained to identify victims of human trafficking, in hoped of cracking organized crime rings through the victims.

The detective says police were targeting three main groups, including Asians, Latinos and Russians. They had learned that customers of human trafficking cases solicited primarily within their own ethnic groups. Chinese men frequent Chinese brothels, and so on. The difference in languages and cultural background make the job difficult for police.

Congress’s report on human trafficking
The report released by the Congress on June 3, 2006 ranked the situation of human trafficking in 150 countries on four levels. Level One, for example, is a country with the least problems, and Level Three is a country that has made no effort to solve the problem and could face sanction by the United States.

The report criticized China for not putting enough efforts into combating human trafficking, yet it praised China for aggressively investigating and prosecuting traffickers.

The report says China is the main source for people being smuggled. Men, women and children were forced to be illegal workers and prostitutes. Women were sold to Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan as prostitutes.

Hong Kong, France and Germany ranked Level One, yet it also says Hong Kong was a transit area for people being smuggled. Hong Kong Police Department, responding to the report, says Hong Kong took the issue of human trafficking seriously and was determined to prosecute traffickers. Hong Kong police say they will work closely with regional and overseas enforcement partners to stop such activities.

The report also says Taiwan’s ranking had been downgraded to Level Two because of its repeated cases of abused foreign workers. It says women were sold to Taiwan under the pretence of marriage, and then their sex and labor were being exploited. Most of them came from Vietnam. Therefore, this year Taiwan’s ranking is the same as Cambodia, Indonesia, Israel and Libya. North Korea, one of the worse countries in trafficking, was ranked Level Three.

The Republic of China's Representative to the United States David Lee, says Taiwan regretted seeing the results of the study. He says the Chinese Department of Labor been making efforts and would continue to communicate with the United Stated in hopes of improving the situation.

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