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January 12, 2004
Michele Clark works for the Protection Project, a legal human rights research institute, working to establish “an international framework for the elimination of trafficking in persons, especially women and children.” On March 4, I interviewed Michele Clark in her office at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C. about the issue of human trafficking.
TOJ: What is the extent of the human trafficking problem in the United States?
MC: According to the most recent government estimate, the numbers are between 18 and 20,000 women and young girls who are brought into this country every year. There are not any reliable numbers on how many actually exist, how many victims of trafficking would be here now. If you extrapolate and say 20,000 a year over the past 5 years, you could say 100,000, but that would be an extrapolation. However, the reliable numbers that the US government is willing to stand behind at this point bring the entry to about 20,000 a year. And according to our data, we can identify them as coming from about fifty different countries.
TOJ: And where are those countries mostly located?
MC: Well the large parts, the largest members are from, sort of blocs, Latin America, especially Mexico. But I don’t know if they’re mostly Mexicans or if Mexico is a transit hub for women from South America. But Mexico is a very large port of origin. They come from Southeast Asia, especially India, they come from the former Soviet Union and eastern bloc countries, and some come from Africa. The countries of origin are also different according to the type of trafficking. Women from South America, Central America, are brought in for, in large part for the sex industry, as are a lot of far eastern women. A lot of African women and Southeast Asian individuals are brought in, in large part, for labor trafficking. But it’s not an either/or proposition; it’s not that only Mexicans are brought in for sex trafficking, only Indians are brought in for labor trafficking. The lines are blurred, but those are a few of the generalities or trends we can identify.
TOJ: What percentage of those people are brought in for the sex industry?
MC: We don’t know, because prior to 2000, we would arrest women or individuals who were here on illegal immigration status and they would be deported. There would be no effort, because there was no legal provision to identify them as victims of crime, to bring the perpetrators to justice, and then to move forward with providing some kind of restoration or restitution for the women who had been victims. Our law passed in 2000. It made trafficking a crime, it gave victims status to people who had been trafficked, and we’re moving very slowly towards the prosecution of this.
A lot of cases that had been prosecuted, a lot of the sex trafficking cases which were initiated prior to 2000 and which reached a verdict after 2000, were still prosecuted under indentured servitude laws. And so they’re considered cases of servitude or debt bondage but not identified as trafficking. And our trafficking law indicates that trafficking includes sex trafficking as well as labor trafficking, but it’s still the same statute. There are not two laws for labor trafficking or sex trafficking. And one recent case even, in Washington State, which was investigated after the passage of the Trafficking Victim Protection Act, was prosecuted as labor trafficking because it was difficult to prove certain criteria that needed to exist for sex trafficking. So they got it as trafficking, but as a labor and servitude case.
When you’re talking about a minor, it’s very easy. All you need to do is prove, essentially, that a third party is gaining from the exploitation of a minor. Exploitation for commercial sex purposes or exploitation for labor—working in a mine, working in a plantation, a field, a house, you know, a variety of other purposes. If a third party profits, then it’s an instance of trafficking. And trafficking doesn’t have to be across an international border. Our current research and investigation reveal extensive trafficking, child trafficking in Latin American countries within the same country. But there is the exploitation—there is the profit of the third party. When the individual is over eighteen, according to the U.S. law, you have to then prove that there’s some kind of force, or fraud, or coercion. And that’s a little bit more difficult. But in some cases it’s been easier for the U.S. attorneys to then prosecute that under the forced labor part of the trafficking law. So it’s very difficult. The Israelis right now are revising their statutes to basically say, whether it’s a minor or not, the minute there’s any kind of gain from the exploitation of another, any consent of the individual is irrelevant. So you shouldn’t have to prove forced fraud or coercion. It doesn’t matter that a woman thinks its fine to be sold into slavery. The fact is that people are doing the buying and the selling, and that itself is the crime. But our laws require, for women over eighteen, forced fraud or coercion.
TOJ: So you would like to see that change?
MC: I believe that the minute profit is made by a third party off of the exploitation of another being that it should be punished. Yes, I am actually very much in favor of that. Consent is such a very difficult thing to determine anyway. But it’s irrelevant to the fact. What kind of world are we living in where we find it tolerable that people gain off the backs of another? Regardless, that should be an outrage, an outrage enough, in my opinion. Especially for a group of people who believe that there is basic dignity in life, that sense of dignity has to be upheld, and therefore the practice of gaining off of the life of another can’t be allowed.
TOJ: How is the average U.S. citizen unconsciously contributing to this problem?
MC: Well there is a very interesting article in the most recent edition of the Atlantic Monthly called “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement” [Caitlin Flanagan, The Atlantic Monthly, March 2004]. Actually, it’s the cover story. And she steps in where a woman named Barbara Ehrenreich basically also went in a book called “Global Women: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy” and raises some very interesting questions. Basically the gist of this is that American feminism survived once it went from the effort to work for women’s solidarity in general and women’s rights and women’s empowerment in general to the empowerment of the individual, the idea, you know, of the Wonder Woman [holds up picture of Wonder Woman] or the Superwoman. The “having it all.” So American feminism went the direction of most things American, individual superdome, superstardom, super empowerment at interesting costs. And this [article] talks about how much of that empowerment in contemporary terms has happened because the only way their families are taken care of is through the labor of foreign women. Cheap labor of foreign women. And in many cases, it’s legal. In many cases, it’s quite legal and many of these women do follow the IRS and the social security regulations and pay them wages and you don’t have the Linda Chavez cases. We’re talking about, in many cases, legal situations that contribute to this phenomenon, which is very disturbing to me, of the encouragement of individuals in developing countries to seek employment in developed countries.
There’s another fascinating article in the International Herald Tribune that talks about this whole money lifeline, money sent home. Foreign remittances by workers in foreign countries amount to about ninety-five billion dollars annually. In a country like Moldova, 25% of the work force works outside of the country. The governments have come to a place where they depend on foreign remittances. In some cases, the people work legally. In many cases, they work illegally. This sets up very awkward dynamics in the home country, in the country of origin. There’s a predisposed attitude and culture among young people to think [that], in order to have a future, they have to leave. That does several things. One, it creates a climate where people are ripe to respond to opportunities, legitimate opportunities, or in the case of a lot of trafficking, fraudulent opportunities. Second, the governments, because of this, are doing very little to create opportunities within their own countries for the people to stay and seek a future. So you have, you have systems that are, that encourage the migration out for survival. You have governments that are doing very little to encourage opportunities to stay. If the men leave, you have the women who are relatively unprotected. They have to scramble to provide for themselves. As soon as the young girl reaches a working age, she works rather than pursues an education. And so you create a series of conditions within a country of origin that make young women extremely vulnerable to seek opportunities elsewhere.
And many times what I have found in my interviews with these women in Eastern European countries, it’s a real tragedy because they want to leave for reasons that we would think are noble and pioneering—leaving the country, braving new languages, new cultures, to support a young child, to support elderly parents. These are noble and good impulses, but created by all the wrong reasons, created by neglect of the home country and the reliance of many countries in the West on cheap labor. And so you have this economic dynamic which makes women vulnerable. Traffickers for sex and labor are extremely opportunistic and extremely clever. And they look at situations and they understand very quickly how they can make a profit out of existing conditions. And they sort of just sweep in there and create a variety of scams, and set up a variety of opportunities that look different in every single country. You have the same actions, you have recruitment, and you have different forms of transportation, acts of trafficking which have been legally identified. But it’s fascinating to study this internationally and see how it looks different in each of the different countries. How the recruitment is handled differently. How people are led to believe that the opportunities can in fact be good. How parents are convinced, sometimes unknowingly, to allow their children to be released to foreigners without really understanding the implications of all of this. So in the midst of these very awkward and unhealthy economic dynamics between countries, you have the predators who exploit the vulnerabilities and who exploit the demand for cheap labor and cheap sex to their own enrichment.
TOJ: What is the War Against Trafficking Alliance?
MC: The War Against Trafficking Alliance was founded by Congresswoman Linda Smith, who was a representative from the state of Washington bringing together a group of nonprofit organizations, including the Protection Project to form a united front, a body taking a stand against trafficking. The first major public venture. And basically the War Against Trafficking Alliance was convened to work with the U.S. Department of State on presenting the World Trafficking Summit last February. This was a State Department Conference, as I said, co-sponsored by the State Department with the War Against Trafficking Alliance. We were part of the planning, and the Protection Project developed the conceptual framework and the talking points for the discussions and brought together representatives from over 100 countries, who were handpicked because they were practitioners and had hands-on experience in the trafficking arena, to have an opportunity to talk about what they were doing to become resources to one another, to network with one another and to move forward in the war against trafficking. As a result of that, there have been a series of several conferences in countries around the world that have been, again, identified with the help of the State Department, including the Dominican Republic and Moldova and Indonesia, to help further and advance some of the conversations that began at the conference in Washington.
TOJ: And as a result of these conferences is there increased action against the perpetrators in foreign countries? Do you see people going into brothels and breaking them up or catching people at borders?
MC: What we have seen, certainly, is an increase in legislation and legislative activity. The Dominican Republic has enacted a very good anti-trafficking law. So the fact that countries are spotlighted, the fact that governments are brought together with representatives of the international community, and the local non-profit or NGO community has been, as a result of this, a very positive event. I’ve seen some fairly successful initiatives launched as a result of it. It’s really hard in this type of movement, as in any world social change movement, to point to any single moment, short of the Emancipation Proclamation and a couple of Wilberforce’s speeches, and say, “Because of this one event, the whole landscape changed.” And in trafficking, you certainly have the activities of the European community which are very extensive as well as the initiatives of the U.S. government. So the two working together, the growing public, international pressure, President Bush’s speech in front of the United Nations—all of these help. And so everything, the U.S. State Department sponsored conference, the War Against Trafficking Alliance conferences, they’re all valuable in just reminding the world that this is an agenda that’s not going away, and that it’s going to keep moving forward, and they’re valuable because of that.
TOJ: Is there something about Western culture that makes us customers? Is it just that we have the money?
MC: Sure. The West has a history of depending on cheap labor. The U.S. abolished slavery, and what did we do in order to expand the territories out West and build the railroads? We brought in Chinese workers. It’s a sad history, actually. We have farms in the South, and so we bring in Mexican workers. And Europe has its own interesting challenges. But the demand side of the trafficking industry is a very critical part of the whole equation, because if there were not places for the citizens of India and Nepal and Cameroon and Nicaragua—if there weren’t places for them to go and money for them to receive, they wouldn’t go. So I think that Americans, in particular, need to understand— your question was very good—to what extent do we contribute knowingly or unknowingly to the demand for exploited labor, be it sex, or domestic, or agricultural, or factory work. Sex exploitation, especially when its minors, is an extremely violent and horrific form of exploitation. But it happens across the board.
TOJ: What do you do here at the Protection Project? How do you tackle such a broad problem?
MC: One of our primary functions is to gather information data from around the world. And we analyze it, and we look at trends, and we look at trafficking routes, and we document what’s happening. And then on the basis of that, we identify every year different parts of the world, different groups, or different issues that we want to address in greater detail. This year we have done a lot of work on how to identify victims of trafficking. I was involved with the government of Nicaragua to develop a program to identify victims of trafficking, and it had a wonderful result in that when we went in to start doing this, we decided that we did not want to limit this to an effort that was either sponsored by one single organization or one single sector—NGO sector, the government sector, the international organization sector. But for something like this to work, it had to work multi-sectorally in that country. The result was that a national task force was convened to address the problem and to move the agenda forward. So around one particular task, a larger initiative happened. We consult with foreign governments on the development of legislation, we provide, to lawmakers, law enforcement officials, domestically we provide training to service providers on the provision of the U.S. law. My co-director and I do extensive public speaking.
I’m going to a university in Illinois. Monday is International Women’s Day, and so they invited me to speak and make trafficking the issue. Around that, they have developed a community awareness forum, in which we’re bringing together different members of the community who are thinking, “We want to get involved in this. What can a community, in Peoria, actually, do about global trafficking?” And there’s a lot they can. So as a university and a research institute our primary purpose is research and documentation, public education, and then application, primarily through training and other forms of educational programs. We don’t do direct services, we refer a lot of people to services, and in Washington in particular, we are very involved with the local service agencies and have good partnerships with them. They benefit from our research, we benefit from their practical experience, and that helps all of us.
So we don’t do direct victim services. We do advocacy on a case-by-case basis. Both my colleague and I have written numerous letters, pounded doors on Capitol Hill on behalf of victims from Moldova, Prague, other places, seeking to get different residency statuses changed, and different legal decisions modified, and been able to have some satisfaction as a result of that as well. I personally look for opportunities for individual involvement wherever I go, because that always keeps me honest. It also makes me cry. It’s what makes me weep at night when I come back to my hotel room after going into the strip clubs in Managua watching the child dancers. And there’s no paradigm in which to understand that. But it keeps me honest in what I do. Because we are doing all of this for individuals who have names, and who have lives, and whose dignity must be restored because otherwise it erodes from who all of us are as human beings.
TOJ: It’s an election year.
TOJ: How is Bush doing with this problem?
MC: He’s one of our heroes, regarding trafficking. He’s been extremely supportive—the White House has been extremely supportive—and his speech in front of the United Nations is something we can all point to as a fact that this has been injected front and center into the global debate. I love that. We can all go back to the fact that President Bush said on September 18th, to the United Nations, that the scourge of human trafficking had to be obliterated from the face of the earth. It’s a wonderful thing to have said. I was very proud of that day, actually.
TOJ: My last question is, practically speaking, what can our readers do to help?
MC: There are a lot of things that your readers can do to help. The first thing is to really understand what human trafficking is. The second thing is to open their eyes and look at what in their areas is going on. It’s kind of dirty work, but there are people who can help figure it out. Are there massage parlors and strip clubs? Well send some people in there and find out who’s actually doing the work. You would be surprised at what you find. You’ll find a lot of women who don’t speak English. So do that. I’ve talked to some pastors here in this area and I’ve said, “You know I would love to see your churchmen have vigils outside of one massage parlor, every night, for a month. Get a permit, and just stand there, and don’t harass anybody, but make it known that this is a practice that is not really acceptable in a particular community. Again, learn and understand what the phenomenon is.
TOJ: Thank you very much.
MC: It was my pleasure.
Andy Barnes lives with his wife in Washington DC, where he works for a nonprofit. He enjoys reading and listening to music.