Human trafficking steps from the shadows
On the eve of International Women's Day, attention turns to the largely invisible issue of modern-day slavery
| 12 March 2008
Bay Area residents were shocked when, in 2000, Berkeley landlord and restaurateur Lakireddy Bali Reddy was charged with smuggling minors into the United States and keeping them as sex slaves. (He was later sentenced to more than eight years in prison and ordered to pay $2 million in restitution.) Were it not for the accidental death of a 17-year-old girl brought here from India with her younger sister - the result of a malfunctioning heater in their small Bancroft Way apartment - that case, which involved at least 25 girls over a period of 15 years, might never have come to light.
On any given day, according to a 2005 report by the campus Human Rights Center, more than 10,000 men, women, and children in the United States are being forced to work as prostitutes, agricultural and sweatshop laborers, or restaurant and domestic workers. The center identified 57 forced-labor operations based in major urban areas in California alone, San Francisco among them. Traffickers, the report said, routinely subject their victims - often immigrants too terrified to reveal their plight - to beatings, threats, and other forms of abuse, both physical and psychological.
Obscure and widely misunderstood, the issue of human trafficking took a small step out of the shadows last Thursday - two days before International Women's Day - at a panel discussion in Dwinelle Hall hosted by Stop the Traffick, a student group. Panelists included the head of the California Commission on the Status of Women, an attorney with Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, a representative of Soroptimist International, and an Oakland police officer specializing in cases involving the sexual exploitation of minors.
The discussion touched on questions ranging from the need for tougher anti-trafficking legislation to the lack of state funds to assist victims. But what made the evening especially memorable was the keynote speaker, the author of a self-published book, The Sacred Bath: An American Teen's Story of Modern Day Slavery.
"Slavery and human trafficking look like me, too," declared Theresa Flores, a white, blonde, 43-year-old resident of Columbus, Ohio, who has spent the past year traveling the country to recount her story at similar events. Describing herself as "a nice Catholic girl who lived in a large, suburban house" near Detroit during her teenage years, she said she was targeted by traffickers, drugged, and date-raped at the age of 15 - "I was just a kid," she said - and then blackmailed and forced to work as a prostitute "for two long years."
"They said they would kill me and my family and my dog if I didn't do what they said," reported Flores, adding that she was "beaten into silence every night" by her captors. Throughout her ordeal, she said, she was permitted to live at home, sneaking out every night to turn tricks, and then returning home and going to school the next day. Once, she said, she was kidnapped, taken to inner-city Detroit, and "tortured for hours and hours and left for dead" before being returned to her emotionally absent parents by an unsympathetic police officer. Only when her father moved the family to another city after a job transfer, she said, did she finally break with her captors.
"This is a human-rights issue, and it is happening right here in the United States," said Flores, now a social worker and mother of three. "Why isn't this on the nightly news?"
It fell to the panelists to address that question, among others. Mary Wiberg, of the Commission on the Status of Women, and Erin Gangitano, of Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, noted the difficulty of identifying victims of modern-day slavery, whose relative invisibility has slowed the passage of legislation to prosecute trafficking rings. As a member of the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery task force, Wiberg took part in an 18-month examination of the problem, helping to produce a report in November titled "Human Trafficking in California." Among its recommendations were stiffer sentences for traffickers, more funding for NGOs providing services to victims - such as shelter, health care, and legal support - and better data collection on the nature and extent of trafficking in California.
Gangitano, whose clients include domestic servants and restaurant workers brought here from developing countries, told of an all-too-typical case in which a woman's passport was withheld by her traffickers on the pretext that she owed $10,000 for being brought to the U.S. Such victims often are unable to speak or understand English, and are unfamiliar with their rights under U.S. law. In many cases, she said, their consulates are "in denial" about trafficking in their countries, and thus unwilling to help.
Trafficking victims, said Gangitano, are apt to be found working in restaurants - often doing multiple shifts with minimal time off - or even as babysitters. "Keep your eyes open," she advised the largely student audience.
The U.S. State Department estimates that human trafficking claims as many as 800,000 victims worldwide every year, and that up to 17,500 - chiefly from Asia and Central and South America - end up in the U.S. According to the Human Rights Center's research, more than 500 people from 18 countries were ensnared in forced-labor operations in California between 1998 and 2003, nearly half of them in prostitution. The largest number of foreign victims, 136, came from Thailand, the center reported, followed by Mexico and Russia.
"These cases of forced labor represent only the publicized incidents," the report's authors cautioned. "We suspect the actual number is considerably higher."
California, a major destination for traffickers, enacted two new laws in 2006 aimed at combating the problem: the California Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which made human trafficking a felony and provides for restitution to its victims; and the Human Trafficking Collaboration and Training Act, which requires law-enforcement officers to be trained in responding to human trafficking. The bills also established the statewide task force, the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery (CA ACTS), that produced the 2007 report.
But much more needs to be done, said Carol Dippel, the president of the El Cerrito chapter of Soroptimist International, a volunteer organization of business and professional women that launched its Soroptimists STOP Trafficking project on Jan. 11, which the U.S. Senate last year designated as the National Day of Human Trafficking Awareness. Professionals, she said, especially need to be trained in recognizing the signs of human trafficking.
Jim Saleda, an officer with the Oakland Police Department's vice crimes and child-exploitation unit, described his city's efforts at charging human traffickers as traffickers, rather than simply as pimps. "We always use human trafficking as the first charge," he said, if only to provide more accurate statistics on the crime.
He also said his own unit had grown in its understanding of the problem. "When we first started," he said, the attitude toward prostitutes was "clear the streets."
"Now," he said, "we treat them as victims."
Moderated by Stop the Traffick co-director Tonia Bui, the event was co-sponsored by the Associated Students of the University of California, the Gender Equity Resource Center, LunaFest, the Gender and Women's Studies Department, and the Prytanean Women's Honor Society.