Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sex Trafficking: still hidden

Somewhere in the world, a girl laid lifeless, deserted, miles away from home. She was seventeen, the prime age when we contemplate our bright futures, which college we are going to and what we plan to do. Instead, she was being sexually assaulted by a 62 year old man while forced to work ceaselessly to maintain his apartments and restaurants. The smile had long ago dissolved from her young face. She laid with a future wiped away by the carbon monoxide that infiltrated her lungs. Only in her death was she liberated from her imprisoned life. A 15-year old girl stared horrified at her older sister’s fate.

The Vemireddy sisters were just two of the many girls victimized by human traffickers. This tragic scene occurred in 2000 in our hometown of Berkeley. Lakireddy Bali Reddy, one of the largest property owners in Berkeley, manages over 1000 apartments as well as a restaurant called Pasand Madras Cuisine on Shattuck Avenue. Former Cal students have walked by these buildings across from Unit 3 dozens of times, never once imagining the atrocities that occurred inside. An office worker working nearby the restaurant claimed that older men watched over the female workers, who seemed only to be in their early to mid-teens. “They always looked so sad,” she observed. She “thought they treated them like slaves.” Reddy was bringing over girls and women, as young as 14, from his native village in Andhra Pradesh, India to the U.S. for labor and sex.

An estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, 50,000 of them (probably an underestimate) into America. Trafficked victims in the U.S. not only come from other countries but also within the U.S., and California is among the top destinations for trafficked humans. Some victims are kidnapped by traffickers, while others are sold into the sex trade by their parents, husbands, or boyfriends. Others are lured into the trade with a false promise of a good job or a marriage in another country. Domestically-trafficked persons are frequently lured by men who feign love before coercing them into sleeping with other men. Seventy percent of trafficked victims are females and fifty percent are children. Because of their extreme need for money, women and girls in impoverished Third World countries are particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of sex trafficking.

According to federal law, human trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” Raking in $44.3 billion a year, human trafficking is the second most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world. The high profits and low risk of prosecution entices people to work as traffickers. As a sex trafficking survivor, Theresa Flores revealed that it is a “growing epidemic…the fastest-growing crime industry.” In the mini-series Human Trafficking, on the Lifetime Channel, the financial appeal of this industry is explained: "An ounce of cocaine, wholesale: $1,200, but you can only sell it once. A woman or a child, $50 to $1,000, but you can sell them each day, every day, over and over and over again. The markup is immeasurable."

Any type of human trafficking likely involves sexual exploitation, especially for women and children. Victims are instructed to use condoms unless clients offer more money to take it off. Consistently and forcefully exploited, victims can easily contract sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS, gonorrhea, syphilis, urinary tract infections, and pubic lice. Vaginal and anal tears, coerced abortions, miscarriages, sterility, and menstrual problems are also common injuries that victims must endure while traffickers enjoy the financial prosperity of their painful labor.

Those unfamiliar with the situation faced by these victims tend to believe that victims can “physically and psychologically get away from traffickers” without any help, but Nola Brantley and Adella Rodarte, staff of the Sexually Abused and Commercially Exploited Youth (SACEY) Program, know that this na├»ve assumption is just “a myth.” To maintain their profit margins, traffickers demand obedience through a variety of methods: confinement, starvation, beatings, rape, and forced drug usage. If a person suffered everyday from stab wounds, broken bones, skin burns, blows to the heads, and drug withdrawal symptoms, would he or she be terrified into silence? To prevent victims from running away, traffickers not only keep victims in a confined location until escorted to an assignment but also take away their passports, birth certificates, and ID cards. On top of the brutality and isolation, victims are psychologically imprisoned; they are constantly threatened with deportation, physical imprisonment, violence to them and their families, and the prospect of being shamed by public exposure of their sex life. Subjected to such inhumane conditions, trafficked victims and survivors endure shame and depression while traumatic memories initiate posttraumatic stress disorder. These experiences not only cause a damaged sense of self worth and low self-esteem, but they can also lead to self-hatred, self-mutilation, and suicidal impulses.

Despite the numerous health problems that afflict sex and labor slaves, traffickers want to bring their victims into public as little as possible. Access to valuable health services is rare because traffickers do not want to expose their crimes to hospital staffs and risk prosecution or, even more coldheartedly, be forced to pay for the costs for treatment. When sex slaves do obtain medical treatment, traffickers will never allow victims out of their sight. Their threatening presence on top of possible language barriers silence victims from seeking help. Furthermore, most staffs trusted by traffickers are poorly trained to treat such patients, yet they are often entrusted with performing high-risk procedures like abortions. Too frequently, children come to the SACEY program with “STIs, pregnancies, HPV, headaches, migraines, and neglected long-lasting conditions.” Brantley, the SACEY Program Coordinator, and Rodarte, the Program Case Manager, argue that traffickers see victims “as commercial objects, not as persons who require medical attention or care.” Although SACEY is committed to providing health and social services to prostituted children trafficked across city or state lines, the staff recognizes how rarely victims are offered such services. Brantley and Rodarte estimate that law enforcement that offer services to child prostitutes exist in “only 5-7 counties, if that.” Most counties all across the nation arrest prostitutes, both adults and children, without providing them any services at all. Hence, treated as criminals rather than the victims of criminals, they are released back into society with nowhere to go but back into the hands of their ravenous traffickers, who are endlessly greedy for more profit.

After such long periods of isolation, it is virtually impossible for victims to seek help, especially if they do not speak English. City officials and law enforcement unfortunately neglect the trauma of the trafficked and further exacerbate the problem by condemning them. Because of their illegal immigration status, trafficked victims tend to be punished more harshly than the traffickers. The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 “makes victims of trafficking eligible for benefits and services under Federal or state programs once they become certified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.” A t-visa is a temporary residence card that allows non-U.S. citizens to be treated like refugees. However, this requires aid in law enforcement investigation and proof that they will suffer “extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm” if they leave the U.S, which is a rather difficult case to prove in the majority of circumstances. Mary Wiberg, a member of the California Human Trafficking Task Force, argues that it is “difficult to get a t-visa,” and “laws need to be changed to make this easier.”
Humans are the world’s greatest resource, but the concept of preserving self-dignity and self-worth is beaten out of trafficked victims every day through physical abuse and threats. Students worry about midterms and essays weekly. Trafficked victims worry about physical and emotional pain everyday. They need to be identified. They need help. They need services, but where do they go?

(Written Fall 2007- Public Health Advocate)