When she was 13-years old and working as a waitress near Vera Cruz, Mexico, Rosa was offered an opportunity to make more money as a waitress in the United States by a man acquainted with her family. The man insisted that it was a no-lose situation-–Rosa could change jobs if she were not satisfied or even return home at any time if she wished.
She asked her parents for permission, but they flatly refused. Rosa, though, did not want to miss out on a chance to better her own life or that of her family, so she took the man up on his offer and secretly met him late at night as per his arrangement. Waiting for Rosa were a car and several more girls from nearby towns.
The youth were quickly transported to a location near the Mexican-American border, where they met up with many more girls and their male companions. They walked together for four days through the desert before being smuggled across the Rio Grande to Brownsville, Texas. At this point, they were picked up again, trafficked all the way to a secluded area in Florida and left off near a collection of trailers.
Rosa’s new life began here. She was immediately informed that she had been “bought,” and that the only way she could gain her freedom was to work as a prostitute. The trailers would serve as the makeshift brothels.
Only the Name Has Been Changed
Tragically, Rosa’s story is an all-too-common one both here in the United States and around the world. The practice of slavery still exists, it simply goes by a different, more antiseptic name: human trafficking.
According to the United Nations, human trafficking specifically entails: “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”
In other words, human trafficking is the illegal and unethical treatment of people as products or tools, as objects for commercial use or exploitation.
Turning a Blind Eye
According to estimates of the most recent U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report, between 600,000 and 800,000 people are smuggled each year across international borders for the purpose of forced labor or commercial exploitation. This includes the roughly 20,000 people trafficked into the U.S. each year.
Millions of victims annually are also trafficked within their own borders, but specific statistics are difficult to attain, since cooperation from local governmental authorities is usually limited at best.
The report also estimates that upwards of 80 percent of the victims of trafficking are female and close to 50 percent are minors. The female victims of human trafficking are most often sold into sexual slavery, forced labor situations or domestic servitude. In nations wracked by civil war such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, children are bought and/or abducted from families to be used as soldiers in combat situations. In impoverished nations such as Ghana, children are often abducted or bought from desperate families to work exhaustively in the farming or fishing industries. Some victims of trafficking are exploited for their internal body parts, a practice typically referred to as organ harvesting.
Virtually all instances of human trafficking are conducted illegally, since most every nation in the world has technically criminalized coercive labor practices. Unfortunately, though, many nations turn a blind eye, in part because governments themselves can benefit financially from the practice of cheap or forced labor as well as from the boost to their economies as a result of money flowing in from the illegal sex trade.
Most experts agree that human trafficking is a thriving global phenomenon because of the intersection of two factors: a vast international marketplace for the exploitation of individuals and an enormous population of desperate individuals looking to pull themselves out of hardship.
According to the Department of State’s John Miller, this combination of forces makes certain individuals, “vulnerable to the lies, coercion, and manipulation that traffickers employ to lure” them.
When referring to the marketing and exploitation of humans, Miller prefers to use the term modern-day slavery. Certainly, human trafficking, like drug trafficking, captures the commercial aspect of the practice as well as the market place the agents of the crime wish to establish. The term also captures the way in which the victims are treated–as products, goods and services but Miller’s choice of words is a far more accurate reflection of the reality on the ground.
An ancient practice under a different name
In a speech at the Inter-American Development Bank this past November in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of State’s John Miller brought the issue of human trafficking into focus for those in attendance by recounting the experiences of Rosa, the 13-year-old girl from Mexico who was sold into sexual slavery in Florida.
Rosa pleaded with her captors to let her work as a waitress, as she was promised. Her pleas were refused, and she was again told that the only job available was as a sexual servant. Rosa resisted their demands.
As a result of her defiance, Rosa was gang raped (she was a virgin) and starved until she finally ceded to her captors’ wishes.
Rosa’s pimps made her have sex with at least ten and upwards of thirty men per day. She was impregnated twice and forced to have abortions in order continue her work. (She was also made to “work off” the costs of the procedures.)
Rosa and the other girls were guarded constantly. If they ever attempted to escape, or if they did not give in to a customer’s demands, they were brutally beaten. To alleviate her pain from the chronic abuse, the traffickers gave Rosa drugs and alcohol–not out of kindness, but in order to keep her functioning for business.
About six months later, Rosa was finally rescued when one of the girls leaped out a second-story window of a private party she was “working” and ran to get help. The local police contacted the INS and FBI, who ultimately broke up the operation.
When Rosa was released from jail (she was at first arrested for prostitution) and given a medical exam, it was determined that she had various STDs; a damaged reproductive system; multiple fractures from the beatings; drug and alcohol addiction, and a host of serious psychological and emotional problems.
Rosa’s story is not unusual for a victim of human trafficking, and with millions of people still victimized each year, clearly not enough is being done. Perhaps the reality has been too far removed for most of us to truly give it a second thought; perhaps it is still, to steal a phrase from the First World War, “over there.”
Yet even though the public is not fully aware of this hideous reality, positive movements have recently been made towards rectifying it. For one, girls in Rosa’s situation are no longer arrested as criminals themselves. There is now a trafficking law in place in the U.S. and other nations that protects victims and differentiates between them and the perpetrators of the crimes.
On January 10, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005 (TVPRA) was signed into law by President Bush. The piece of legislation will dedicate close to $200 million per year to the cause as well as provide expansive opportunities for the investigation and prosecution of domestic human-trafficking crimes.
Non-profit organizations such HumanTrafficking.org and Human Rights Watch are actively involved in both breaking up trafficking operations, educating the public and giving aid to the victims.
The Church Responds
The Catholic Church as well has been actively addressing the global human-trafficking problem.
At an international conference in April, 2001, the late Pope John Paul II called human trafficking “a shocking offense against human dignity and a grave violation of fundamental human rights” that is “one of the pressing political, social and economic problems associated with the process of globalization.”
Pope Benedict XVI this past October reiterated the Vatican’s strong condemnation of the practice in his Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees.
On a more practical level, more than twenty Catholic organizations have come together to form the Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking. Members of the Coalition include Catholic Charities USA, Covenant House, Jesuit Refugee Services and the National Council of Catholic Women.
The Coalition’s four-pronged goal is to 1) “formulate plans for combating trafficking and serving its victims”; 2) “promote development of services for trafficking victims and approaches to empowerment of trafficking victims”; 3) dialogue with government officials and others engaged in public policies affecting this issues”; and 4) “devise strategies for public education, awareness-raising and grass roots action.”
Raising public awareness as well as addressing the underlying causes (such as poverty, poor education and limited economic opportunities for potential victims) is as critical to tackling human trafficking as is improving law-enforcement and legislative efforts.
How to Help
To learn more on the subject or find out ways to help: