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California’s Prop 35: A Misguided Ballot Initiative Targeting the Wrong People for the Wrong Reasons

7:11 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Melissa Gira Grant for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Banner: No Prop 35, Sex Workers are NOT Sex Offenders

No on Prop 35 Banner

California voters hold the power this Election Day to decide if many thousands of people convicted of prostitution-related offenses in their state must now register as sex offenders. These are their neighbors, their friends, their family — whether they know it or not — and many are women: trans- and cisgender women, poor and working class women, and disproportionately, they are women of color.

This attack on women already made vulnerable to violence and poverty is just one of the possible consequences of Proposition 35, a ballot initiative marketed to voters as a tough law to fight trafficking but is instead a “tough on crime” measure backed with millions of dollars from one influential donor, written by a community activist with little experience in the issue. If it passes? Advocates for survivors of trafficking, civil rights attorneys, and sex workers fear that rather than protect Californians, it will expose their communities to increased police surveillance, arrest, and the possibility of being labeled a “sex offender” for the rest of their lives.

Trafficking is a hot-button issue, where even defining what is meant by the term is contentious and deeply politicized — but at a minimum, it describes forced labor, where the force may be physical or psychological in nature. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that nearly 22 million people may be involved in forced labor worldwide, the majority of which does not involve forced labor in the sex trade. In the United States, anti-trafficking law developed over the last ten years has advanced definitions of trafficking. In addition to Federal law, states have passed their own trafficking laws, which overlap with existing laws against forced labor, child labor, minor prostitution, or prostitution in general.

A good deal of advocacy around trafficking is concerned with proposing new laws, with several organizations — such as the Polaris Project and Shared Hope International — focused on introducing copycat legislation state-after-state, focused on increasing criminal penalties associated with trafficking and moving resources to law enforcement. There is little evidence that strengthening criminal penalties and relying primarily on law enforcement are strategies to end forced labor; in fact, advocates who work with survivors of trafficking, as well as people involved in the sex trade and sex worker rights’ advocates, have documented the limitations and dangers of a “tough on crime” approach on trafficking. Still, the “tough on crime” approach has become dominant in what some anti-trafficking advocates now call “the war on trafficking.”

Treating Those In the Sex Trade as Sex Offenders

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U.S. Policy and the Unjust Approach to Human Trafficking of the International Justice Mission

11:25 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Melissa Gira Grant for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

This article is part of a two-part series commissioned by RH Reality Check analyzing U.S. trafficking policy as outlined by President Obama at the Clinton Global Initiative.

Melissa Gira Grant

Journalist & sex worker activist Melissa Gira Grant (Photo: Re: publica 2012 / Flickr)

When you picture a human rights defender, are they carrying handcuffs? Are they removing you from your home or workplace and directing you into a police van? This is, unfortunately, the face of some of the “human rights defenders” being funded by the United States government through “anti-trafficking” initiatives around the globe.

And this is the unfortunate picture President Obama invoked — in all likelihood, without intending to — in his remarks last Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. In the address, before heads of state, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society representatives, the president elaborated his most detailed position on the United States’ commitment to ending human trafficking. He spoke at length about the issue of forced labor, whether performed by garment workers, agricultural workers, or child laborers. Obama also praised the work of faith-based NGOs, which would not itself be a problem but for the fact that many of the faith-based groups receiving U.S. funding bring their evangelism along with law enforcement into their anti-trafficking work, and in particular the work they do focusing on the sex trade.

We are especially honored to be joined today by advocates who dedicate their lives — and, at times, risk their lives — to liberate victims and help them recover,” the President said. “This includes men and women of faith, who, like the great abolitionists before them, are truly doing the Lord’s work — evangelicals, the Catholic Church, the International Justice Mission…

This is the same International Justice Mission whose reliance on headline-grabbing brothel raids conducted with police to “rescue” sex workers have drawn criticism from human rights advocates around the world.

As journalist Noy Thrupkaew reported for The Nation, International Justice Mission (IJM) became a global force after receiving millions of dollars in federal grants, made available for the first time under the Bush administration during its drive to shift large sums of U.S. international aid funding to fundamentalist evangelical Christian and Catholic groups. Also driving their growth was an expansion of federal trafficking law enabling the United States to suspend aid to countries that did not comply with US counter-trafficking efforts.

In 2002, at the same time as the United States demanded crackdowns on commercial sex work, which the State Department has erroneously claimed drives trafficking, IJM became a recipient of federal funds. In 2003, IJM took on more dramatic operations, such as embedding a television crew from Dateline NBC with a team of IJM staff and law enforcement to raid a brothel in Svay Pak, Cambodia. IJM stated they “rescued” 37 girls, but at least 12 of them ran away from the police-guarded “safe house” in which they were detained. In the wake of the raid, USAID found that the number of minors involved in prostitution actually went up.

Though some anti-trafficking activists believe that sex work is indistinguishable from trafficking, sex worker rights’ advocates stress that sex work is work, and that working conditions in the sex sector are the issue, not sex work itself. Indeed, working conditions in the sex sector are made worse for sex workers when, in order to avoid interference and harassment from law enforcement and would-be “rescuers,” sex workers must work alone or in isolated conditions.

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To Address Human Trafficking, the United States Must Take a New Approach

11:14 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Melissa Ditmore and Juhu Thukral for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

This article is part of a two-part series commissioned by RH Reality Check analyzing U.S. trafficking policy as outlined by President Obama at the Clinton Global Initiative.

Last week, on Tuesday, September 25th, President Obama gave a major speech on trafficking in persons at the Clinton Global Initiative. The timing is important: Obama referenced the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and noted its connection to human trafficking, which is often called a form of modern-day slavery. In his speech, he said:

Now, I do not use that word, ‘slavery’ lightly.  It evokes obviously one of the most painful chapters in our nation’s history.  But around the world, there’s no denying the awful reality.  When a man, desperate for work, finds himself in a factory or on a fishing boat or in a field, working, toiling, for little or no pay, and beaten if he tries to escape — that is slavery.  When a woman is locked in a sweatshop, or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone and abused and incapable of leaving — that’s slavery.

On its face, the President’s speech appears to reflect a real understanding of what trafficking is — a situation in which force, fraud, or coercion at work create a climate of fear and keep enslaved and in dangerous working conditions out of fear rather than as a voluntary decision. Obama also gave detailed examples of instances where men and boys are most frequently victims of trafficking. This is powerful, since most of U.S. rhetoric on trafficking has focused on sex work and women, including erroneously, voluntary sex work; trafficking of men and boys was almost completely absent from the rhetoric of President Bush, for example. Obama also specifically addressed the horrors experienced by child soldiers, an issue that has not yet caught the public’s imagination as a key concern in the fight against human trafficking. We are hopeful this speech suggests a welcome change in the scope of U.S. anti-trafficking efforts.

But when it came to the specifics of the Obama administration’s actual priorities, the president was not so clear. As president, Obama can lead the way on anti-trafficking and anti-violence efforts, but his speech was coded in many ways to reflect that he will follow the lead of his predecessor in prioritizing relationships with anti-prostitution organizations who use anti-trafficking rhetoric to further an agenda that violates the human rights of sex workers.

Confusing  all sex work with trafficking trivializes the abuses experienced by the trafficked persons and ignores the agency of women who turn to sex work as their best among limited options. Sex workers do not want to be victimized by labels they don’t choose; they want to be agents of change in their own lives and exercise their human rights based on their own priorities. Law enforcement efforts to address trafficking in the United States, however, have to date focused on “vice raids,” leading to arrests of women, mostly poor women and women of color, many of them U.S. nationals and people who have not been trafficked, and many of whom make a living via sex work. It is a thinly veiled anti-prostitution effort.  It is no wonder that this model, echoing the use of other legislation purported to protect women, has not led to better identification of trafficked women. Indeed, a report from the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center found that women trafficked into sex work in New York City had experienced frequent arrests — up to ten arrests! — without being identified as trafficked.

Obama specifically praised faith-based organizations for their work and the White House fact sheet mentions an expanded role for faith-based groups. This is highly problematic, given that most of these groups focus only on trafficking into one labor sector — forced prostitution — and are not stalwarts on many issues of women’s rights. In addition, President Obama specifically praised the International Justice Mission (IJM), an organization that has engaged in raids on brothels. (See Melissa Gira Grant’s analysis of IJM here.)

Such “rescues” are meant to be the acts of well-meaning Good Samaritans, but they more often than not cause severe human rights abuses. These efforts tend to help a very few while causing harm to many, and distract attention and resources from the less sexy issue of abuse in other labor sectors. The United States has encouraged other governments to adopt anti-trafficking laws, and some nations have done so. Cambodia is one example, enacting a law on “the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” in 2008. This was implemented in such a way that sex workers around the country were arrested and sent to former Khmer Rouge prison camps. Human Rights Watch has documented egregious abuses in arrests and while imprisoned, including denying access to life saving medicines, beatings, rape and even deaths in custody. Furthermore, these arrests have not assisted people in situations of forced labor in other sectors.

In his speech and in the fact sheet, Obama mentioned increased resources, tools, and trainings, much of it targeted to law enforcement. But he did not say how this is any different from current federal efforts that are largely focused on law enforcement efforts to prosecute trafficking. Furthermore, the fact that in the United States, most trafficking survivors will need to help law enforcement in order to be recognized as victims of trafficking has not lead to greater cooperation. And despite funding for law enforcement task forces that have relied on vice arrests, victims have come forward in small numbers, fewer have been recognized by the U.S. government, and there are even fewer prosecutions and convictions. A better alternative would be to focus on ensuring labor rights in all sectors and on making services accessible for trafficked persons with less reliance on workplace arrests or cooperation with law enforcement.

To his credit, the president mentioned new efforts focused on getting businesses to examine supply chains for trafficking in their own industries. But one industry he mentions is the travel industry — again, without specifics, language around the “travel industry” is usually coded to mean that activities will focus on squelching sex work, as opposed to abusive practices against maids and other low-wage staff who work in hotels.

As part of this package, the White House released an executive order strengthening protections against trafficking in persons in federal contracts. Many elements of executive order appear to relate to all industries where trafficking happens. But the document regularly addresses “trafficking in persons, the procurement of commercial sex acts, or the use of forced labor” — equating commercial sex acts with trafficking and forced labor. So it is not clear at all — does the president know what trafficking in persons is, or is he still learning? Or is he walking a fine and dangerous political line? The implications here are important, for workers’ rights as well as for the sex workers described above. Corporations have been major users of trafficked labor and their practices often go right up to the line of being considered trafficking, by using agents to outsource contracts and claiming ignorance about conditions for the workers, even when the amounts for hours billed do not meet minimum wage.

At least by focusing on federal contracts, this administration is addressing in an important way the realities of abuses of labor in all sectors. There are important precedents that lead to this order. While it may be hard to believe, there have been federal contractors embroiled in trafficking scandals. During U.S. interventions in the former Yugoslavia, DynCorps, a military contractor, was involved in trafficking young women into what the women thought would be jobs in hotels, only to be raped and suffer  other abuses. A book written by one of the women fired when she exposed trafficking by DynCorps was made into the movie “The Whistleblower.” Today, foreign workers on U.S. military bases abroad have endured conditions that meet the definition of human trafficking. 

We commend the president for acknowledging the breadth of trafficking and human rights violations across sectors and the associated labor abuses that frequently occur, and for recognizing that trafficking occurs even in federal contracts, which have many layers of supervision and reporting. But advocates and people who provide services to trafficked persons continue to push him and demand that he recognize trafficking for what it is and not get mixed up in the politics of advocates who are not as focused on addressing the climate of fear endured by so many workers around the world. Enforcement of fair and equitable working conditions in all sectors, with a focus on economic opportunity for all, would go a long way toward ending trafficking in persons.

Naivete and Best Intentions or Trafficking in Children For Religious Purposes?

6:23 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Jodi Jacobson for RHRealityCheck.org – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

The term "trafficking in children" conjures up the worst of all possible scenarios…bad people taking children away from their families for nefarious purposes, such as the labor or sex trade.

But can children be trafficked for religious purposes by deeply misguided people who think they are doing "good?"

According to the United Nations, human trafficking is defined as:

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation".

As I hear more about the story of the group of Baptist church members from two congregations in Idaho that attempted to take 33 children across the border into the Dominican Republic without papers and absent any legal process, it strikes me that in fact they were trafficking these children for religious purposes.

The first reports on the group suggested that the children were orphans and that the American Baptist group was "just trying to help." According to the Washington Post:

One of the detained Baptists, Laura Silsby, told the Associated Press that the group had not obtained the proper Haitian documents to take the children. But she explained that the group was "just trying to do the right thing" to help.

But the road to hell is, as they say, paved with good intentions, and this response struck me, from the beginning, as deeply naive and even dangerous. Even if the children were orphaned and even if the country was devastated by an earthquake, you do not–you can not–just parachute in from Idaho and take children out of their country with no process, no permission, no legal review, no effort to find or communicate with any living relatives just because you think it is the right thing to do.

It turns out, however, that most if not all of the children were not orphans and in fact have relatives–parents, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, grandparents–alive in Haiti. Some had been separated from their families in the aftermath of the earthquake, some may have lost one or both parents but still had extended family. Some had been brought by their own parents to orphanages where, the parents apparently hoped, they would get priority for scarce food supplies. In the aftermath of such a devastating national disaster, people do what they can to survive until they can regain a stable footing. Placing children in orphanages is one such strategy.

But the Baptist group went one further, because they were actually in direct contact with the parents of some of the children.

Several parents of the children in Callebas, a quake-wracked Haitian village near the capital, told The Associated Press Wednesday they had handed over their children willingly because they were unable to feed or clothe their children and the American missionaries promised to give them a better life.

What possessed the American Baptist group to try take them away from parents likely still in shock, and out of the country so swiftly, without permission from authorities? Religious beliefs, it seems, drove this group to feel it was above the law, but also to take these children for the purpose of converting the children to their own form of Christianity.

About half of all Haitians identify as Roman Catholic, about 15 percent as Baptist, 8 percent Pentecostal and 3 percent Adventist, with the rest identifying as Muslim, Christian Scientist, Mormon or other religious affilations.

The majority of Haitians, however, practice voodoo alongside Christianity (most commonly with Catholicism), and the voodoo religion keeps a strong hold on the beliefs, traditions, and worship practices of the population. In short, voodoo holds that all living things–from people to trees and plants–have spirits. According to a report by the U.S. State Department, voodoo is frowned upon by the elite, conservative Catholics, and Protestants.

The voodoo religion, adopted from practices in Africa brought to Haiti by slaves, is one aspect of "animist" religious practices which the Catholic church and evangelicals have long sought to banish from Africa, Haiti and elsewhere, because they are seen as incompatible with true Christianity.

But "true Christianity" is what the American Baptist group wanted these children to practice. For example, a flier used for fund raising purposes by the group in Idaho states that:

NLCR is praying and seeking people who have a heart for God and a desire to share God’s love with these precious children, helping them heal and find new life in Christ.

The flier also suggests this may not have been the only trip they intended to take children out of Haiti. Their flier states:

Given the urgent needs from this earthquake, God has laid upon
our hearts the need to go now vs. waiting until the permanent facility is built. He has provided an interim solution in nearby Cabarete, where we will be leasing a 45 room hotel and converting it into an orphanage until the building of the NLCR is complete. This interim location will enable us to provide a loving environment for up to 150 children, from infants to 12 years old.

Moreover, the New York Times story from today reports that

some of [the] parents said the Baptists had promised simply to educate the youngsters in the Dominican Republic, and said the children would be able to return to Haiti to visit their families.

Was it clear to the parents what exactly these missionaries had in mind? It doesn’t seem so. Isn’t it a form of coercion to ask people so devastated by a tragedy to given up their children for some unknown "better life" without offering to better their lives right there? Why take them away? And if your intention is to bring these children to the DR and put them up for adoption to "loving Christian homes," how does telling their parents they are just going to get an education and can "come back to Haiti to visit" make you much different than the labor or sex trafficker who promises a woman that she is going to find lucrative work abroad in a new industry, only to be trafficked for other purposes? While these children might be adopted to "good homes" that does not obviate the lies, deception and abduction in which the group engaged to secure access to these children.

These children were clearly being abducted for the purposes of religious conversion, a strategy that may have been indirectly propelled by a broader religious movement to expand adoption internationally for the purposes of religious conversion.

A report in the Associated Baptist Press, for example, quotes Russell Moore, senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as decrying the efforts of the Idaho Baptist group to "remove children from earthquake-stricken Haiti without proper documentation [because it] could give a black eye to a budding movement of evangelicals who view adoption as a means of spreading the gospel."

ABP relays Moore’s reaction upon hearing the news of the 10 Americans being held in Haiti:

"I thought, ‘Oh no, this is going to cause all kinds of derision to the orphan-care movement and to what the Holy Spirit is doing in churches all across America and all over the world in having a heart for orphans,’" Moore said, sitting in as guest host for seminary president Al Mohler.

Last year Moore published a book titled Adopted for Life calling on Christians to adopt children as a "Great Commission priority." On Feb. 26-27, the seminary in Louisville, Ky., is sponsoring an "Adopting for Life" conference aimed at creating "a culture of adoption" in families and churches.

"The Bible tells us that human families are reflective of an eternal fatherhood (Eph. 3:14-15)," says a website promoting the event. "We know, then, what human fatherhood ought to look like on the basis of how Father God behaves toward us. But the reverse is also true. We see something of the way our God is fatherly toward us through our relationships with our own human fathers. And so Jesus tells us that in our human father’s provision and discipline we get a glimpse of God’s active love for us (Matt. 7:9-11; cf. Heb. 12:5-7). The same is at work in adoption."

This is sensitive territory. Untold numbers of children languish in orphanages in countries throughout the world, waiting for a safe and secure home. And when a child is without parents or any family and has no recourse, it is assumed that the best thing for that child is to be placed in a loving home through adoption.

But the link between adoption and prosyletization is troubling. In Haiti, for example, I would imagine that parents, rather than being so bereft of food, shelter, water, health care and other profoundly basic needs that they feel compelled to give their children to orphanages or to strangers promising them a "better home," never to see them again, would prefer to be assisted right there to rebuild their lives, maintain their families intact, raise their children according to their own traditions and see them thrive.

But learning about their own heritage and history is not part of the "gospel-driven" religious movement. Moore, for example, is the father of two children adopted from a Russian orphanage.

In his book, Moore said when he and his wife were adopting their boys they were encouraged by social workers and family friends to "teach the children about their cultural heritage."

"We have done just that," he wrote.

"Now, what most people probably meant by this counsel is for us to teach our boys Russian folk tales and Russian songs, observing Russian holidays, and so forth," Moore explained. "But as we see it, that’s not their heritage anymore, and we hardly want to signal to them that they are strangers and aliens, even welcome ones, in our home. We teach them about their heritage, yes, but their heritage as Mississippians."

Moore and others, therefore, have strongly criticized the tactics of the Idaho Baptist group in large part because they are concerned about the backlash against their own efforts to expand "gospel-driven" adoption. .

"I’m worried that this news is going to give a black eye to the orphan-care movement in the same way that some of the really rambunctious, lawbreaking aspects of the right-to-life protester movement did to the pro-life movement," Moore said on Monday’s program.

"[It] is going to cause people to have increased skepticism toward what I think is a genuine movement of the Spirit of God among God’s people."

Similar sentiments were expressed in an interview conducted by Moore with Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, and David Platt, senior pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala.

Medefind, a former aide to President George W. Bush who led the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, now heads an alliance of orphan-serving organizations and churches promoting Christian orphan and foster care and adoption and adoption ministry.

The group’s mission statement says it exists to "motivate and unify the body of Christ to live out God’s mandate to care for the orphan." The Alliance’s vision statement is "every orphan experiencing God’s unfailing love and knowing Jesus as Savior."

Its easy to get caught up in the moment of devastation to say that rescuing children by taking them "away" from their parents and their country is the first, best response. According to the New York Times, for example, the Americans, their lawyers and members of their churches have said they are innocent of any wrongdoing, and said the imbroglio was "a huge misunderstanding."

In an interview earlier this week, Ms. Silsby said the group had come to Haiti to rescue children orphaned by the earthquake, and that “our hearts were in the right place.”

But was it really, given their own materials? And what does that really mean when you have a religious agenda for children–many of them with living family– who are being taken away from everything they know to serve your own notion of what is right in the world and your own notion of "God?"

"The Real crux of the issue," writes Anthea Butler at Religion Dispatches, is this:

These ten do-gooders walked into the trap many well meaning white evangelical Christians fall into: those poor brown/black/yellow/red people need My help. Jesus wants Meto help them. To much of White American Evangelical Christianity the We often means Me. It’s what God Called Me to do. It’s what God would want Me to do. The problem with the Me mentality of much of conservative Evangelical Christianity is that they often can’t see the We—the people of Haiti—who love their kids so much they’re willing to let some white people who claim to be “Christians” take them away to what they promise will be “a better life.”

It is unquestionably true that the majority of adoptive parents raise their children in their own faith. It is a different issue, however, to me at least, when you seek to rescue children, legally or not, for the express purpose of expanding the number of believers in your faith….removing all trace of their original heritage. It strikes me as similarly troubling to providing aid to people in need in order to bring them into your "religious fold."

And it also seems that similarly to those who call themselves "pro-life’ but perpetuate violence against medical doctors and their clients, an approach that suggests the "religious ends" justify the means in removing children from a country will only lead to more coercion, abduction, and falsehood in the effort to "rescue" children from a culture and a religion that does not comport with your own.

To me that feels like trafficking children for religious purposes.

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Veronica Arreola wrote about the same subject here.