The blog entry was originally posted on Wherever Magazine‘s website. It’s not uncommon for me to meet clients who have been victims of human trafficking. Most of them were trafficked from East Africa to the Arabian peninsula, and then to the U.S. as domestic servants. Occasionally, I also meet clients who were victims of sex trafficking. For this post, I combined several of my own cases and one publicly available case in order to illustrate the problem of modern day slavery:
Amelia was a promising twenty-something working as a teacher in her native Indonesia. After she lost her job due to religious and ethnic discrimination, she wanted to move some place safe. She began looking for ways to come to the United States.
Through an ad, Amelia found a position in the restaurant industry in New York. An agency arranged her travel to the U.S., but when she reached JFK, things were not as expected.
Her “contact” met Amelia at the airport and immediately took her passport and other documents. Instead of bringing her to the promised job, he took her to a brothel. When she protested, her contact threatened Amelia with a gun.
For the next several months, Amelia was transported from one brothel to the next and forced to have sex with many different men. Her captors kept her under close watch at all times.
Finally, one day, she escaped through an unlocked window. Even after she was free, Amelia knew no one in the United States and she did not know where to go for help. She lived on the street until she met someone who put her in touch with law enforcement.
Amelia was able to obtain a “T” visa—a special visa for victims of human trafficking, which allows an alien to (eventually) become a permanent resident of the United States.
Except for the successful escape, Amelia’s story is quite typical. Social scientists estimate that there are currently about 27 million victims of human trafficking world-wide. But only a small fraction of those victims—about 40,000 people—are identified and helped each year. In the United States, as many as 200,000 children are currently at risk of sex trafficking. Most victims are trafficked within their own countries, but many people—like Amelia—are taken on long journeys from poor countries to more affluent countries, where they serve as sex slaves, domestic labor or agricultural workers.
According to U.S. government estimates, last year over 17,000 people were brought into the United States to serve as slaves.
As an attorney who represents asylum seekers, I sometimes meet victims of human trafficking. One common scenario involves women recruited to work as domestic servants in the Persian Gulf (most commonly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE). The women usually come from poor countries in Africa and are lured to the Gulf with promises of a decent wage and steady work.
In one recent (and typical) case, my client Fatima had been detained and beaten in Ethiopia because of her political activities. She was also a victim of female genital mutilation. Fatima had to find a way out of her country. She went to an employment agency. The agency helped Fatima obtain a passport and found a job for her as a domestic servant in the United Arab Emirates. In July 2009, she left Ethiopia and started working for a family in the UAE.
Work conditions and pay were not as promised. Originally, the agency told Fatima that she would be babysitting one child. When she arrived, she found that she would be babysitting three young children. In addition, she had to clean the house, cook, wash laundry, and tend to her employers’ guests. Fatima worked 20 hour days, and her employer banned her from speaking with other Ethiopian house servants. When she showed signs of being unhappy, the employer threatened to return her to Ethiopia.
In August 2010, the employers announced that they would be going to Florida with the children for a six month vacation. Fatima would come with them. The U.S. government issued Fatima a visa for “personal and domestic employees” and she was on her way to America.
In the United States, Fatima continued as a domestic servant, but now her employer stopped paying her. She knew no one in Florida and had little opportunity to meet people outside her employers’ house. Finally, after five months as an unpaid, 140-hour a week domestic worker, she met some other Ethiopians in a park. They told her that she could seek political asylum in the United States.
Fatima called her brother in Ethiopia, who put her in touch with some friends in Ohio. Those friends found someone in Florida to help. So early one morning, while her employers were sleeping, Fatima snuck out of the apartment, went to a rendezvous point and met her contact. She stayed with him for a few days until her brother’s friends arranged to bring her to Ohio and then Washington, DC.
In DC, Fatima filed for asylum. The case took several years, but finally, in September 2013, an Immigration Judge granted Fatima’s application for asylum. She has now begun her new life in the United States.
Fatima and Amelia both escaped from their captivity. Most trafficking victims are not so lucky.
At least in Fatima’s case, the U.S. government could have done more to protect her. She received her visa without an interview at the U.S. Embassy. For domestic servants who come to the U.S., the embassies should interview each person (as they do for most other visa applicants) and ask about wages, hours, and working conditions. Where there is evidence of trafficking, visas for the workers and their employers should be denied, and the local authorities should be contacted. At least this would reduce the number of victims trafficked to the U.S. And once they are here, the employers of domestic workers should be required to verify (with evidence) that the domestic workers are receiving their salary, paying taxes, and working reasonable hours. Employers who do not comply with the law should have their visas revoked and should be prosecuted.
For trafficking victims in the U.S., there are resources available. The Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign raises awareness about the issue, and there are numerous NGOs, such as the Polaris Project, involved in the anti-trafficking fight. It will take the combined efforts of governments, non-profits, and individuals to identify and free victims of human trafficking, and bring the perpetrators to justice.
In this article, the names of the women and identifying details have been changed.