Human Trafficking and Human Rights

In November 2017, local papers in New York City lit up with headlines of the sensationalized story of a sex worker who jumped to her death from a massage parlor window to escape a police raid. While many news outlets framed the tragedy as someone looking to evade accountability from law enforcement, the real story is about a human being who had little support and options beyond suicide.

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, a time to raise global consciousness that slavery never died, and that the world’s most disenfranchised are the most at risk. New York is one of the top five hubs in the United States for human trafficking, with documented cases up 50% in 2016, with specific insidiousness within NYC, engulfing undocumented immigrants looking to survive in a sanctuary city.

Human trafficking is defined as “the exploitation of a person’s labor through force, fraud or coercion.” While it is unclear that the aforementioned sex worker, 38-year-old Yang Song, was indeed a trafficking victim, the intersection of immigration, sex work and law enforcement elements in her story reveal that she was likely in a very vulnerable position for exploitation.

Human trafficking has always been a blight on human history, yet has been the foundation of many modern countries that we call civilized. The most well-known example is the nearly 400,000 West Africans were brought to North America during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, a drop in the bucket compared to the 10 million who were trafficked to just the Western Hemisphere alone until The Slave Trade Act of 1807. But slavery is much older than the Slave Trade, it’s been as constant almost as time itself.

An estimated 80% of trafficking victims worldwide are women and children. In the United States, victims of trafficking are almost exclusively immigrants, and mostly immigrant women. This practice has been even more insidious in NYC because of our ever-changing neighborhoods due to gentrification and displacement where we no longer know our neighbors, and the fact that, in a city as expensive as New York, cheap labor from exploited people is embraced much more than we may realize or admit. Many of the workers that are gears in our biggest industries toiling sight unseen are at risk for labor violations, from busboys to domestic workers to salon employees.

One of the most widely-circulated stories of 2017 was The Atlantic’s posthumously-published account from writer Filipino writer Alex Tizon who documented the story of Lola, a woman who came to live with his family as a teenager, without pay or even her own bed, and endured decades of verbal abuse and on-demand labor. As a child, the writer knew that Lola’s presence as an indentured servant was uncommon, but the acknowledgement that his family harbored an undocumented slave and almost normalized within his family.

But many trafficking victims are not initially forced into work, many are seduced by opportunities unavailable to them, usually in the form of steady job, or by someone they considered trustworthy.  LGBTQ people are especially vulnerable, as many are kicked out of their homes as teenagers and still continue to face housing and employment discrimination, and have few places to turn. Immigrants, including DACA and TPS recipients, are also susceptible; many are undocumented and often faced with threats from immigration police if they speak out. Some do have documentation that is taken from them from exploiters, leaving them no recourse of action but to live under threat of deportation, or in fear that their families in their home countries will be harmed in retaliation. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers are known for patrolling courthouses to prey upon undocumented immigrants who are domestic violence victims and those inspired to take legal action against their traffickers. Many trafficking victims are forced into illegal activity, including sex work, so they will be less likely to come forward about their traffickers for fear of being arrested and/or deported. New York is also unique in that when underage victims who are engaged in illegal activity while trafficked are identified, they are often prosecuted instead of treated, deprioritizing their safety and undermining their recovery.

During her time at the massage parlor, Yang Song allegedly married a man who was an American citizen, yet still maintained working at the massage parlor, often as a 24-hour fixture. She had all the trappings of an escape from a life of exploitation, yet why was her presence a continued fixture? Why and how was the hold of trafficking so strong? Leaving the life of trafficking behind as a vulnerable person is not as easy as it may seem.

Trafficking can happen to anyone, from any walk of life, and while the experience is nearly always grim and desperate, there are solutions to enact to prevent trafficking and to center victims’ experiences. partner New York Anti-Trafficking Network was launched in 2002 to shine a spotlight on these hidden-in-plain-sight practices by prioritizing survivors’ stories and working to end trafficking through policy, economic justice, LGBTQ and women’s advocacy, and protecting immigrants’ rights.

NYATN believes that one of the biggest obstacles in the battle against human trafficking is the plague of global systemic inequality, and the way to combat this is through anti-poverty work. Housing, job, and health security must be a given for all, because desperate situations make for desperate people liable to be swept into dangerous situations when they’re just trying to survive. While we have a long way to go to implement worldwide equality, basic human rights like housing security must be ensured, with active work to end homelessness and greater access to truly affordable housing-- a goal that has been attained in several American cities, and can be attained in NYC. Work towards raising the minimum wage across the country is crucial, as well as working towards prison abolition that allows for marginalized people to be funneled into jails instead of receiving resources and treatment.

Education is a tremendous factor for both victims and for those who want to help. Learning what human trafficking is and who is most at risk, as well as what to do if you suspect someone is a trafficking victim and needs immediate help, is vital information. Understanding more about global instability and how this contributes to trafficking’s domino effects can help us comprehend how trafficking functions in our backyards.

Decriminalizing sex work is also a must to end human trafficking. Entangling victims into the world of law enforcement on top of exploitation only further endangers them. More than 50% of human trafficking victims are forced or coerced into sex work, and as sex work is illegal throughout most of the world, victims are remiss in speaking out lest they implicate themselves. In addition, according to NYATN, Greencard status is automatically denied to anyone found to have engaged in sex work within the previous decade, no matter if sex work was legal in that country. A criminal record can block access to education, jobs and housing forever, furthering desperation. Even sex workers who are not trafficking victims, who are in their line of work by choice, should have the legal right to practice safe sex work when there are so few options for women globally to financially support themselves, when they are deprived of education, opportunity, safety and independence.

Social services are needed for survivors so they get the specialized attention and treatment they need for healing and recovery. Many trafficking advocates recommend social workers to assist survivors to help them navigate legal issues, language barriers, helping them acquiring housing, food, medical care, education and basic other needs, as well as therapy to cope from their trauma. Most importantly, their social worker must be an advocate for the survivor just by listening to them and letting them drive their own pathway to recovery. It is important that advocates take a backseat and follow survivors’ intuitions, rather than projecting their own approaches that may prove ineffective.

Mindful consumerism is also another pathway to trafficking prevention. Much of the cheap goods and services we take advantage of are the products of trafficked labor. Some advocates recommend paying higher tips to people like salon technicians, busboys, domestic workers and other typically low-wage laborers, but these tips are often garnished by their exploiters, the money only continuing to feed the beast.

Local hotels are also taking action against traffickers by aligning with lawmakers to be a lifeline for victims in need. Borrowing from a Connecticut law, policymakers in New York are working to make it mandatory for all hotels to place signs in their lobbies featuring a hotline for trafficked victims in need of help. Hotel employees would also be trained to spot possible victims and what to do to extract them from dire circumstances, similar to what is required for hospital staff. These hotel signs would also assure victims forced into sex work that illegal activities they may be performing should not stand in the way of their seeking help.

New York Anti-Trafficking Network also advocates for providing equitable, specialized legal services for survivors, who often become entrapped with law enforcement in the fight for their freedom. Lawyers must understand the unique needs of trafficked victims, including immigration and housing law, and work to separate illegal activities they may have engaged in while under the control of a trafficker. NYATN also supports civil remedy, which would allow trafficked victims restitution for all the labor they were forced into. New York State currently does not provide civil remedy for its survivors, indicating the long road towards victims’ rights.

The fight for global human rights is also the fight for trafficking victims, because if these victims aren’t free, then no one is free. Policy and organizing for rights for all marginalized people—women, people of color, our LGBTQ community, the disabled—must include a plan to provide for human trafficking victims that does not alienate or criminalize them. We must center the people who have been silenced for so long because they are poor, because they are women, because they are non-white, because they are immigrants, forced even further underground because the world tells them that they are worthless and undeserving of help and basic human needs. Part of preventing and ending human trafficking is the need for everyday people to wake up to the reality around us that the specter of slavery still haunts amongst us, serving us food, cleaning our hotel rooms, and crying alone in the darkness. Wake up for Yang Song, and for all victims and survivors everywhere.

Watch more on global human trafficking from our partner Korea Society.

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