Human trafficking is unthinkable but, tragically, not impossible. Human trafficking, the buying, selling, and smuggling of people – most often women and children – still exists in the year 2012. It exists around the world and it exists in the United States.
This was a hard column to write. Every person I spoke with, every report I read, brought fresh horror to mind. Thirteen-year-old girls forced into prostitution under the threat of having a sister tortured and killed. Men and women, desperate in their own countries, lured by fraudulent promises of a better life in America, the land of opportunity, locked in basements and only let out to do forced work. Children who are kidnapped and sold for profit, their families desperate to find them.
The FBI reports (www.fbi.gov): “Victims are controlled physically, through beatings, burnings, rapes, and starvation; emotionally, through isolation, psychological abuse, drug dependency, and threats against family members in home countries; and financially, through debt bondage and threat of deportation.”
Thankfully, there are 21st century abolitionists willing to come to the aid and defense of the victims of human trafficking. One such is Valerie Martinez, organizer of the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club March 30 event to benefit organizations that work with victims of human trafficking (www.smbwc.org/forfreedom).
The organizations are: CAST, A21, and Saving Innocence. All three organizations are local. For Martinez, this work started when she was in school in Australia and heard Christine Caine, founder of A21, speak about human trafficking.
“I didn’t even know human slavery still existed,” Martinez said. “I knew then I would do almost anything to help even one girl who had been forced into being a sex slave.”
CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking) was started in 1998 after their work in breaking the 1995 El Monte Sweatshop case where more than 70 Thai laborers were held captive behind razor wire, under 24-hour guard and forced to work 18-hour days (www.trafficked-women.org/main.html).
CAST provides safe and secure shelters for trafficked people and helps them obtain medical services, job skills, and education. CAST works to prosecute traffickers and with other organizations and governments on legislation and regulations to end human trafficking and to protect victims of human trafficking.
The A21 Campaign (www.thea21campaign.org) calls for the “abolition of injustice in the 21st Century.” A21 has their first shelter in Greece, as it is the gateway to human trafficking in Europe. A21 workers are the first people the Greek police call when they suspect a person is a victim of human trafficking.
A21 workers go to detention centers and let the girls know that help is available. They bring in food, clothing, and hygiene products, provide legal representation, offer shelter programs, and repatriate girls who want to go home. A21 works to provide each girl with the help she decides she needs.
Saving Innocence (www.savinginnocence.org) officially founded in January of this year, began as a result of Kim Biddle’s volunteer work with child victims of human trafficking here in Los Angeles. Biddle has so far been able to help 16 girls, ranging in age from 11 to 17, who were victims of human trafficking. Most were arrested for prostitution, but were, in fact, forced sex slaves.
She follows the girls starting with when they are put in to juvenile hall, acting as their advocate as they go to court, live in group homes, and began to re-establish paths to safe and more normal lives.
“I feel I’m fortunate to be able to go to some of the darkest places in society and bring light to those places,” Biddle said. “I’m committed to walking with these girls on their journeys.”
The work to abolish human trafficking is becoming stronger as the traffickers become a stronger force in the criminal world.
Actress Mira Sorvino, a Goodwill Ambassador to combat Human Trafficking for the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes, said “human trafficking is tied in second place with illegal sale of arms as the most profitable criminal enterprise in the world with an estimated illegal profit of $32 billion per year and second only to the drug trade.”
In her role as a Goodwill Ambassador, Sorvino has traveled the world attending conferences and working with governments to end human trafficking, but her focus is on the United Sates.
She said “people in the U.S. are not aware, and find it hard to believe, this is happening here and yet the numbers of victims of human traffic in the United States are as high as 300,000 persons.”
“I have spoken about human trafficking to legislators, attorneys general and police departments,” she said. “We need to pass strong laws and to provide education that will protect victims, prosecute traffickers, and end human trafficking.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is a world leader in the fight against human trafficking, estimates “it is likely that somewhere between 12 million and 27 million human beings are suffering in bondage around the world. Men, women and children are trapped in prostitution or labor in fields and factories under brutal bosses who threaten them with violence or jail if they try to escape.”
“I have seen firsthand the suffering that human trafficking causes,” Clinton is quoted saying on www.state.gov. “Not only does it result in injury and abuse – it also takes away its victims’ power to control their own destinies. In Thailand I have met teenage girls who had been prostituted as young children and were dying of AIDS. In Eastern Europe I have met mothers who lost sons and daughters to trafficking and had nowhere to turn for help.”
As a nation we believe that all people deserve, in Secretary Clinton’s words, “to live free, work with dignity, and pursue their dreams.” Yet, today we face dangerous, criminal organizations trafficking in human beings. They are the new slave traders. May we all be the new abolitionists.