It’s the most prevalent crime you may never have heard of or thought much about, tied with illegal arms trading as the second largest criminal industry in the world, after drug dealing. It’s human trafficking, and it’s the world's fastest growing criminal enterprise.
Some 600,000 to 800,000 victims are trafficked across international borders and forced into sex-related work or other forced labor, according to U.S. government statistics. Most come from Asia, Central and South America, and Eastern Europe.
Not surprisingly, a large number of trafficking victims end up in New York City, which is why the Mayor’s office has launched a human trafficking Web site in cooperation with the Somaly Mam Foundation and the NYC Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force.
One of many consultants on the Web site’s content is Suzanne Tomatore, who directs the City Bar Justice Center’s Immigrant Women & Children Project, which, since 2002, has been helping victims of trafficking get out from under their oppressors and start a new life.
The basis for relief for many victims is the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), an amendment to the 1996 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The TVPA allows a multi-prong approach, including the apprehension, prosecution, and increased sentencing for traffickers, and the potential for victims to legalize their immigration status.
The Justice Center’s clients come from all over the world, including India, Indonesia, China, Peru, and Mexico. Their traffickers are often friends, neighbors, lovers or spouses, or family members. Others meet their trafficker by answering advertisements for employment or through friends or family members who work for the trafficker.
Over half of the Justice Center’s cases involve labor trafficking, which is more difficult to identify than sex trafficking because so many industries are involved, and the line between labor violations and human rights abuses can be difficult to discern.
A representative case taken on by the Justice Center involved Yesenia M., a 17-year-old girl who was brought from Mexico to the U.S. to work as a babysitter for her trafficker’s two small children. For nine months, she was unpaid while required also to cook, clean and do laundry and yard work. She was not allowed to speak with anyone outside the family or travel by herself. And she endured three incidents of rape and sexual abuse by her trafficker. In short, she was enslaved. Finally, she befriended a woman at church who helped her escape. Once free, Yesenia contacted law enforcement and cooperated in the investigation and prosecution of her trafficker, who received a prison sentence, forfeited property, and will be deported. Yesenia received a “T Visa,” was reunited with her family, and is starting a business with the compensation she received from her trafficker. Eve Gutman and former-associate Beatrix Bong of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP handled the family’s successful residency application.
“Despite the prevalence of human trafficking, there are many obstacles that prevent victims from coming forward,” said Tomatore. “Fear, shame, lack of resources, and not knowing where to go for assistance all make survivors reluctant to report their traffickers,” she said. “Many victims do not speak English. Some come from countries where law enforcement is not trustworthy or in fact contribute to and profit from human trafficking themselves.”
Awareness may be the best antidote, says Tomatore, since most victims do not self-identify and seek services as trafficking victims. “Outreach and public awareness initiatives are critical to identifying victims and are lacking throughout the United States. A national public service campaign that includes television, radio, and print advertisements in the mainstream media as well as ethnic news markets should be implemented. Coverage on the many different scenarios of human trafficking is necessary, especially for labor trafficking, as these are the most difficult to identify,” she said.
New York City appears to be stepping up with its new Web site, along with a public awareness advertising campaign from Grey with the theme: "See it. Know it. Report it."
The need for awareness extends to law enforcement and government officials, and Tomatore has done her part over the years by meeting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the DOJ in Washington, providing training at DA’s offices, and co-authoring the NY Anti-Trafficking Network’s “Identification and Legal Advocacy for Trafficking Victims” manual. She has also traveled from Venezuela to the Philippines to meet with judges, government officials, students, and NGOs. She’s off to Mongolia in a couple of weeks.
Tomatore notes that this year marks the 10th anniversary of the TVPA, and she’s pleased that the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, due in June, will not only evaluate foreign governments’ efforts to eliminate human trafficking, but will for the first time include self-examination on stateside efforts.
“Human trafficking is a complex, worldwide, and localized organized criminal endeavor,” said Tomatore. “There are a multitude of profiles for victims as well as traffickers. Without training for professionals and public-awareness campaigns, it will be impossible to target and address the problem.”