– the Human Rights Dimensions of Trafficking in Persons
May 15-16, 2002
By Mark Franken, Executive Director
Migration and Refugee Services,
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
In early April of this year the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, in cooperation with other national and local law enforcement agencies, conducted a raid on an organized crime syndicate involving illegal aliens engaged in prostitution in the Northeastern part of the country. Among those apprehended were four young girls from Mexico, who had been lured to the U.S. with promises of jobs as housekeepers and visas, but who instead were forced into prostitution and kept in virtual slavery. At the time of their apprehension by law enforcement personnel, the girls, ranging in ages 14 to 16 years, had been in the U.S. and kept in slave conditions for two years.
Estimates are that as many as 50,000 women and children every year are trafficked into the United States, many of whom are trafficked into the country to work in the illicit sex industry. As with the young girls cited above, many of the victims of trafficking are lured under false pretenses and after arriving in the United States are detained by the traffickers in terrible, inhumane conditions and forced to engage in activities that bring physical and emotional harm.
This is a growing phenomenon, both in the U.S. and worldwide. It is estimated that between 700,000 to four million persons are trafficked throughout the world each year. In the United States, these victims of trafficking come from Southeast Asia, Latin America and, increasingly, from the New Independent States, Central and Eastern Europe, and Africa.
Once the victims of traffickers are discovered by or are brought to the attention of authorities, what happens to them? How are they protected and their needs met? This brief paper addresses these questions and offers suggestions for further strengthening responses on behalf of the victims of trafficking.
Current U.S. Law Governing Trafficking Victims
The phenomenon of trafficking in persons, at least on the scale seen today, has only recently begun to receive public awareness and attention. In the U.S., legislation dealing with this phenomenon and its victims was passed only as late as October 2000. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 contains provisions designed to prevent trafficking and protect the victims of trafficking.
The U.S. law defines trafficking as "all acts involved in the recruitment, abduction, transport, harboring, transfer, sale or receipt of persons; within national or across international borders; through force, coercion, fraud or deception; to place persons in situations of slavery or slavery-like conditions, forced labor or services, such as forced prostitution or sexual services, domestic servitude, bonded sweatshop labor or debt bondage." The aspects of the U.S. law designed to deter trafficking include such provisions as an annual reporting requirement in which the U.S. Department of State must document measures other countries are taking to combat trafficking. It also contains a number of provisions that provide the enforcement and judicial bodies in government expanded authority and prosecutorial tools to prosecute the traffickers. The law recognizes that the only effective preventive strategies against trafficking lie in international cooperation between governments and non-governmental organizations in educating the public about this modern day scourge, identifying traffickers and their victims, and pursuing aggressive sanctions against the perpetrators, as well as those who aid and abet their efforts.
With regard to protecting the trafficking victims, the U.S. law has provisions for making trafficking victims eligible for visas to remain in the U.S. under certain conditions. To be eligible, trafficking victims must be willing to assist in the criminal investigations and/or the prosecution of the traffickers. Under certain conditions the victims may also apply for a permanent resident alien status, which can eventually lead to U.S. citizenship. In the interim of adjusting their legal status, victims of trafficking who are identified by appropriate government authorities can be certified for eligibility for transitional and social services funded through the federal government.
Because there are several different departments of the federal government with responsibility for preventing trafficking, identifying traffickers and their victims, issuing visas, and providing services to the victims, the U.S. law provides for the establishment of an Inter-Agency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. The Secretary of State chairs this task force.
The U.S. government is currently in the process of developing and promulgating regulations designed to implement this law. Proposed regulations were recently issued for public comment on the issuance of visas for trafficking victims. It is anticipated that soon additional regulations will be issued on the matter of services for trafficking victims.
The sad reality remains, however, that although some tens of thousands of persons are trafficked into the U.S. each year, since the passage of the U.S. law on trafficking, fewer than 300 trafficking victims have been identified and certified according to its provisions. Clearly, much more needs to be done to fully implement this legislation and accomplish what the American people expect in terms of combating trafficking and protecting its victims.
The Catholic Church's Response to Trafficking Victims
The bishops in the United States, guided by a long tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, have committed themselves to actively engage in activities designed to ease the plight of the victims of trafficking. Trafficking in persons inherently rejects, and shows contempt toward, the dignity of the human person and exploits the poverty in which many in the world are subjected. The Church has long condemned slavery and oppression, and is especially concerned for the most vulnerable – the women and children – who are the innocent victims of man's inhumanity to man.
The bishops were instrumental in the development and promotion of the legislation passed in 2000. The bishops also look forward to working with the U.S. Congress to further strengthen the law in the future. Likewise, the bishops are and will be actively involved in helping to shape the regulations developed to implement the legislation.
The bishops in the United States, along with a number of Catholic institutions, are increasingly involved in the identification of trafficking victims and intervening on their behalf through counseling and services. In fact, of the approximately 300 victims of trafficking identified in the U.S. since the passage of the legislation on trafficking, the Catholic Church brought almost 200 of them to the attention of U.S. authorities.
In 1999 and 2000, a Korean garment manufacturer trafficked more than 200 young, mostly rural women from Vietnam to a factory in America Samoa. There they were held and forced to work in deplorable physical conditions, denied food and wages, and physically abused. Over a period of months a number of these young women were able to escape from the factory compound and sought assistance in the local community, including with some Catholic sisters. Through the efforts of these Sisters, and other Catholic and human rights groups, the plight of these young women was made public and, eventually, the U.S. government arrested and imprisoned the Korean factory owner. The testimony of the victims against the factory owner has provided critical evidence in the government's prosecution efforts.
In the meantime, the young victims who escaped the horrors of their internment and slave-like conditions have been working to rebuild their lives in the United States and are in the process of applying for the special visas available under the 2000 legislation. Through the efforts of Catholic parishes and social services agencies in the U.S., these former victims are receiving a helping hand to reclaim their sense of dignity and becoming productive and contributing members of their new communities.
Strengthening U.S. Capacity to Combat Trafficking and Respond to its Victims
With the passage of specific legislation two years ago, the appropriation of federal funding to support various responses, and the development and implementation of programs to serve the victims, the U.S. response to this international problem has been encouraging. Yet, more can and should be done to further strengthen the U.S. response. Summarized below are some specific suggestions for legislative and administrative enhancements to the U.S. anti-trafficking regime.
Legislative Modifications Needed:
The current U.S. law has no provisions for a formal role for non-governmental organizations. As has been the case thus far in the U.S., it is often these organizations that can assist in the identification of the victims and arrange for community-based interventions on their behalf. The legislation should be amended to include explicit roles for these organizations to partner with the federal government in responding to the needs of the victims of trafficking.
Additionally, according to current U.S. legislation, in order to obtain the special visas, victims must participate in the prosecution of their traffickers. For this to be a viable proposition for both the government and the victims, provisions need to be strengthened for protecting the victims and their families. A witness protection-type approach needs to be pursued to ensure the safety of the victims and their families, both in the U.S. and in their home countries.
The current law also establishes an age cutoff for victims required to participate in prosecutorial activities. Children aged 15 years and younger are not required to participate in the prosecution of their traffickers in order to qualify for the special visa. The age limit should be increased to 18 years and younger.
Enhanced Implementation Strategies:
At the present time, the communications flows between the various federal agencies involved in the different dimensions of trafficking appear to be inadequate, ad hoc, and inconsistent. The inter-agency task force established in the law should be structured with a strong central coordinator, invested with the authority to effect outcomes across government agencies, and conducting its work in an on-going operational nature. Lines of communications should be clearly delineated and procedures should be established for processing trafficking cases.
As for roles for the non-governmental organizations, they should be formally brought into the process as advisors to the task force. Further, they should be seen as preferred contracting partners with the government for conducting outreach in the identification of trafficking victims and in the delivery of services to them.
For trafficking victims who are children, especially those who are unaccompanied by parents or adult guardians, special programs, based on child welfare principles, need to be made readily available.
When enlisting the victims to participate in the prosecution of their traffickers, the government should ensure the safety of the victims and their families. A witness protection-type program should be employed to the extent possible to protect the victims' identities.
The U.S. government, directly and through community-based, non-governmental organizations should conduct comprehensive public education efforts designed to create greater awareness of the trafficking phenomenon and educate the public about recourses available.
When U.S. government authorities encountered the four young Mexican girls mentioned earlier, they faced a dilemma: what to do with these unaccompanied children who had faced such horrors for two years.
The day after the raid on the prostitution ring in which these girls were found, a call was made by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, Department of Health and Human Services, to Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, requesting assistance in locating an appropriate child welfare environment in which to place the girls. Within a week the girls were transferred to a state-licensed, Catholic program for unaccompanied minors, which not only had staff who spoke Spanish, but specialized in assisting former prostitute's transition to other life styles.
In the month since these girls were placed in this special program, reports indicate that their fears and trauma-induced nightmares are slowly abating. Efforts are underway to obtain visas for the girls to remain in the U.S., because they have no families to return to in Mexico.
This example of public-private partnership in responding to the urgent needs of the trafficking victim represents a model that should be replicated. In so doing, the U.S. can further strengthen its important counter-offensive against today's slave trade.