ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — For many of them, the nightmare begins with a dream of a better life. That’s how it started for Maria Suarez. She was a 15-year-old visiting her sister in California when a woman approached her and asked if she was interested in a job. The thought of earning some money to help out her sister was enticing, so Suarez let the woman drive her to a house about an hour away.
This was the house Suarez thought she was going to be hired to clean — but it was something very different: For five solid years, it was her prison. Her so-called “employer” was her warden, holding her there and abusing her mentally, physically and sexually. And the woman was no career recruiter; Suarez later discovered that the stranger had sold her into slavery for $200.
Human trafficking is the recruitment, smuggling and abduction, transportation, harboring, buying or selling of a person by means of force, fraud, threats or coercion for commercial and sexual exploitation. While it may involve transporting people over international boundaries, U.S. citizens are also trafficked domestically.
Labor trafficking can involve debt bondage, withholding wages and bait-and-switch tactics, while sex-trafficking victims are lured or forced into prostitution.
Across the country, many people are working to aid recovery from, raise awareness of and fight modern-day slavery — and at the forefront of the fight is the Catholic Church. From national organizations to religious orders and individuals, Catholics are active at all levels of anti-trafficking efforts.
2010 has been a year to celebrate landmarks in the fight against human trafficking. Both the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (known more simply as the Palermo Protocol) celebrated their 10th anniversary.
This is also the last year of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide services to foreign national survivors of human trafficking, which ends in April. The USCCB/MRS subcontracts organizations across the country to provide case management — providing support and guidance to survivors as they attempt to recover from the mental and emotional trauma of their experience and move forward by reconnecting with families, landing jobs and addressing immigration issues.
In 2010, 119 subcontractors provided services for 462 human-trafficking survivors in 130 locations in 40 states and three U.S. territories, says Nyssa Parampil, associate director of Anti-Trafficking Services for the USCCB/MRS; slightly more than half were men, and slightly more than three-quarters were victims of labor trafficking. The program has also served 118 relatives of trafficking victims.
The program has so far served a cumulative total of 2,340 trafficking survivors and family members. Each year the program has seen an increase in the number of people served, Parampil notes — but those increases aren’t necessarily dramatic. (According to the U.S. State Department’s 2010 “Trafficking in Persons Report,” 49,105 trafficking survivors were identified worldwide in 2009 — a 59% increase over 2008 — and yet these survivors are a fraction of the people being held in bondage: an estimated 12.3 million adults and children.)
“They’re hard to find, and as a community, we’re just not skilled or trained enough uniformly to adequately identify what we’re seeing,” said Parampil. “We just don’t know what we’re seeing.”
Education is at the core of improved detection of and services for trafficking victims, and that is where the School Sisters of Notre Dame have focused their anti-trafficking efforts. The sisters themselves, as well as their staff, make presentations to community groups and work to educate legislators about trafficking so they understand the importance of continued legislation.
“That we have more people enslaved now than in what we thought was the prime slavery time is astonishing,” said Tim Dewane, director of the Milwaukee Province’s Office of Global Justice and Peace. “That it is cheaper to buy a person now than it was in the 1800s is astonishing. That trafficking is one of the three largest moneymakers for organized crime globally is astonishing.”
“On the positive side,” he adds, “raising awareness and putting the light on this issue really can have a significant impact.”
The order has NGO (non-governmental organization) status at the United Nations and works with other NGOs to increase awareness of trafficking at the U.N.; the order is also a member of the Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking, which allows members to share materials and information so that efforts are not duplicated.
During the 2010 Olympics, held in Vancouver, sisters in the Canadian Province worked with the Canadian Religious Conference to put together awareness and action kits for high schools, helping students to understand the potential for human trafficking during that event. Similarly, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange were one of a number of organizations to sign a letter developed by Christian Brothers Investment Services to raise awareness of trafficking during the World Cup in South Africa last summer; the open letter urged hotel management to train its staff to recognize the warning signs of trafficking. Now members of both orders present their letters to the management of their lodging while they’re traveling.
The Sisters of St. Joseph are also members of Southern California Partners for Global Justice — a group of 17 religious communities — which hosts an annual human-trafficking symposium in January. (January has been proclaimed National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month — an observance culminating in National Freedom Day on Feb. 1 — and Jan. 11 is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.)
Such educational efforts help people understand the massive sprawl of slavery. According to the 2010 “Trafficking in Persons Report,” human trafficking is a $32 billion trade that snares 1.8 victims per 1,000 inhabitants (that number increases to three per 1,000 in Asia and the Pacific). Increased awareness also helps people realize that human trafficking is a pervasive — if often unrecognized — presence in the world around them.
In quiet and conservative Orange County, Calif., for instance, where the Sisters of St. Joseph have their motherhouse, a girl was enslaved in a wealthy couple’s home; after a neighbor noticed that the little girl did not go to school each morning along with the other children of the house, authorities discovered that she had been forced to labor for years without pay.
But people need not come in contact with trafficking survivors in order to get involved in the cause; prayer is also an important weapon. “We don’t work alone,” said Sister Barbara Jean Lee.
Legislating for Freedom
Anti-trafficking legislation, stiffer penalties for traffickers and victim-protection acts are important pieces of the anti-trafficking movement. On Sept. 30, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed S.B. 657 into law; the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 requires that, beginning in January 2012, retail sellers and manufacturers doing business in California disclose their efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from their direct supply chains for tangible goods offered for sale.
In 2011, it is anticipated that Congress will reauthorize funding for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. (It has been reauthorized three times since 2000). The Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victim Support Act, spotlighting a very specific angle of trafficking — children under the age of 18 who are lured into the sex trade and then are prosecuted as criminals, rather than rescued and supported in their recovery — passed unanimously in the Senate Dec. 9, but since it never made it out of committee in the House, it will have to be reintroduced in the new Congress.
Efforts to prosecute traffickers face many challenges, not least of which is survivors’ reluctance to testify against their captors. But in 2009 (the year for which the most recent statistics were available) the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, in partnership with U.S. Attorneys’ offices, charged 114 individuals and obtained 47 convictions in 43 human-trafficking prosecutions — the highest number of prosecutions and defendants in any given year so far.
There has been significant progress in legislation at the federal level, as well as in many states, notes Dewane, of the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s Office of Global Justice and Peace, and awareness of trafficking has also improved dramatically.
Said Dewane, “I think the more awareness is out there, the less this will be tolerated and the more chance we have to eradicate this once and for all.”
Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.