Welcome to the United States

As the US urges the global community to do more to protect victims of human trafficking, declaring January National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the lurid business thrives in the ‘Land of the Free,’ Julianne Geiger writes for ISN Security Watch.

As thousands of foreign nationals are trafficked each year into the US, NGOs and anti-slavery activists are hopeful that the recent proclamation from the White House, recommitting the US “to stopping the human traffickers who ply this horrific trade,” will be more than just rhetoric.

America’s war on human trafficking began in 2000 with the Trafficking Victim Protection Act (TVPA), followed by then-attorney general John Ashcroft’s announcement that combating this evil would be one of the Justice Department’s highest priorities.

At the time, tens of thousands of foreign nationals were being trafficked into the US and enslaved; yet by October 2001, the US had prosecuted only 34 human trafficking suspects. Although this was quadruple the number prosecuted in 2000, the numbers fell embarrassingly short of the number of actual victims.

The TVPA was reaffirmed in 2003 and again in 2005, each time with renewed vigor. Yet today, human trafficking continues to go virtually unchecked, despite adequate financial resources, a willing government and law enforcement that is, for the most part, honest. In fact, less than 1 percent of human trafficking victims in the US can hope to be rescued.

Ambassador Mark P Lagon, current executive director of the Polaris Project, has an optimistic view of the recent proclamation against modern-day slavery, telling ISN Security Watch that it was “important symbolism coming from the first president of African-American heritage.” Lagon served as ambassador-at-large and director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking from 2007 to 2009.

The Polaris Project is one of the largest anti-trafficking organizations in the US, combating multiple forms of human trafficking including the sex trade and forced labor, advocating for foreign national as well as domestic victims.

Easy money

Human trafficking is a global problem, which, according to a report from the Polaris Project, holds nearly 27 million people in bondage as of 2007. Human beings are trafficked from and to a variety of countries, the US being one of the most popular destinations. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Human trafficking is tied with illegal arms dealing as the second largest criminal industry in the world – drug trafficking is the first. However, human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry, generating $32 billion each year, according to the newest State Department Trafficking in Persons Report 2009.

What makes trafficking in humans so lucrative is that unlike drugs and arms – nonrenewable resources – the services of a person can be sold again and again. In addition, in many countries, human traffickers do not face consequences as severe as those who traffic in drugs or illegal arms. In the mind of human traffickers, the benefits often outweigh the risk.

Economic decline, rising unemployment, a flurry of foreclosures, or even America’s suspect Guest Worker Program may exacerbate the issue, but slaveholders have flourished in America since before the Civil War. Whatever the legal loopholes may be, whatever the shortcomings of the government or law enforcement, whatever the desperation of the potential victims – slaveholders have found a way to exploit it.

As desperate persons find themselves with limited options, they are often willing to accept substandard working conditions, placing them in a category of people who are more likely to become modern-day slaves – an epidemic oddly labeled human trafficking, which has more to do with the exploitation of human beings than with their transportation.

The US Justice Department estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 foreign nationals are funneled into the US each year for the purposes of slavery. That statistic is overwhelming when compared to the number of foreign nationals certified by the US Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) as victims of human trafficking from June 2007 to August 2009: 1,264. From 2001 to 2007, the DOJ prosecuted only 360 human trafficking defendants, securing 238 convictions.

Less reliable are the figures that represent those who are trafficked within US borders.

The ignorance enabler

Human traffickers flourish in environments where the citizens are unaware. Victims of human trafficking are often mistaken for willing participants in the sex trade as prostitutes, or as willing smuggling participants. Victims are often arrested by unaware law enforcement personnel, and are often deported as a result.

Human traffickers understand this process all too well, and use this to their advantage.

Professor Bridgette Carr, director of the new Human Trafficking Clinic at University of Michigan’s Law School, said that one common element in all foreign national human trafficking cases she had worked was the fear instilled by the traffickers that kept the victims from seeking help.

“Traffickers tell the victims that Americans hate immigrants and that law enforcement won’t help them and will simply deport them back to where the traffickers will be waiting,” Carr told ISN Security Watch. “What I see is traffickers preying on the anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. They are told that even if they escape, the cops will deport them.”

America’s primary hurdle in addressing human trafficking, according to Carr, is its “lack of awareness.”

“Laws, law enforcement, victim assistance and prevention won’t be successful in fighting human trafficking without awareness,” she said.

One of the functions of the university’s new clinic is not only to advocate directly on behalf of foreign nationals, but also to raise community awareness, as well as the awareness of a variety of stakeholders such as law enforcement and NGOs.

Jane White of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force agrees that awareness is critical.

“One of the difficulties is getting people to believe that it really exists. In our culture, we are free to go and do as we please – we have also been through this with spousal abuse,” White told ISN Security Watch.

Hi-tech trafficking

Like all savvy business owners, human traffickers have kept up with technological advancements. In the US, the internet hotspot Craigslist – the largest site next to eBay for swapping and selling new and used items and for posting job opportunities – has become an efficient method for traffickers to exploit children. On Craigslist’s ‘Adult Services’ section (formerly ‘Erotic Services’), a user can find offers  of pornography, recordings of sex crimes,  offers of prostitution and much more.

Ads are regulated by Craigslist, but it is impossible to monitor every post. The Erotic Services category was removed in May 2009 following the murder of masseuse Julissa Brissman; Brissman met Philip Markoff, who was later charged with her murder, from an add posted in the Erotic Services section on Craigslist. Ads placed in the new Adult Services section are said to be manually reviewed before posting; however, in less than 30 minutes, ISN Security Watch was able to find multiple instances of implied sexual favors and or nude photographic services.

MySpace and Facebook are also resources for human traffickers. Half of the humans trafficked in the US are under 18. Half are trafficked in the sex industry for pornography, stripping or prostitution.

The human trafficking laws for the sex industry are different than those of forced labor, causing not only rifts within the NGO community, but also confusion within law enforcement. The term ‘human trafficking’ has also caused some confusion, and according to some NGOs and other activists, is likely behind some of the lack of awareness. Human trafficking does not need to involve the movement of a human being, only the exploitation of a person through coercion or intimidation. The word ‘trafficking’ leads many to erroneously believe that a person must be brought across a border to be considered a trafficking victim.

In reality, there are many domestic victims of human trafficking. Estimates are that 244,000 American children are at risk of being sexually exploited as of 2000, according to the Polaris Project. For American prostitution, the age of first involvement in the industry is between 12 and 14.

Criminalizing victims

Unfortunately, victims of human trafficking are often seen and treated as criminals. Forced to service up to 100 clients a week, prostitutes are often arrested, jailed and  then put back on the street, while their pimps or slaveholders remain at large.

Minors go through a similar punitive system, with law enforcement further limited as they have “no place to take them,” according to Lagon of the Polaris Project.

With an overburdened foster care system, and with victim benefits available only to trafficked foreign nationals, domestic victims of human trafficking – particularly minors – are left with few options.

“We don’t treat juveniles in this country really well. We say we do, but we really don’t,” Jane White of Michigan State Uuniversity Law School and Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force told ISN Security Watch. One of the task force’s goals is to raise awareness, not only within the community, but also within law enforcement; the ultimate goal being to better identify victims of trafficking.

In 2010, a decade after the TVPA, America has shown little success, and while the US has taken a tough stance on human trafficking elsewhere around the world, what it will not tolerate abroad continues to thrive at home, making renewed efforts to combat the lucrative slave trade must now, more than ever, go beyond rhetoric.

Beginning one year after the TVPA, a large number of people from the Philippines, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic paid thousands of dollars for a temporary visa to work for Giant Labor Solutions in the US. Similar to many victims of human trafficking, many were in pursuit of a brighter future for their family.

Upon entering the US, the workers found they were in debt to their employers. The living conditions were modest and they were denied access to mail. They were transported to different states to work, and they had no say in what type of work was to be done or how often it was to be done. They were told if they did not do as they were told, their visas would be revoked, they would be deported, or their family would be forced to pay $5,000 to $10,000 to make up for the loss. Many discovered on payday that they were further in debt to their employer when their paycheck was not enough to cover the shelter provided by Giant Labor.

The nightmare ended in 2009, when 12 people were indicted for human trafficking, eight of whom were Uzbek nationals.

source: http://tinyurl.com/yzjg7me


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