Listen to Survivors

We often wonder how best to continue the fight against human trafficking. Education and training are two very popular ways this is happening. But, for too long, we’re been ignoring the most obvious solution—listening to the survivors.

No one knows the ins and outs of the horrors of human trafficking better than the victims and survivors. ECPAT-USA and DHS have recently recognized this and have given survivors critical roles to play in combatting trafficking.

ECPAT-USA, the nation’s leading ant-child trafficking organization, has replaced their Advisory Council with a Survivor’s Council, a council comprised of one male and six female survivors of sex trafficking. Their role will be to work in current and future ECPAT-USA initiatives to “ensure the efficacy and sensitive of programs, reports, and materials.” By sharing their experiences with those best able to help, survivors offer insight, hope, and justice for other survivors, as well as the ability to help shape policy and programs to assist in fighting human trafficking.

A similar program known as the Blue Campaign (a program of the Department of Homeland Security) is helping survivors find their voice. Broadly, the Department of Homeland Security’s goal is to help to recognize human trafficking in our communities, arrest the traffickers, and help the victims. Specifically, it offers a voice for survivors and recognizes that, without the help of these individuals, the cycle will never end.

Many survivors want to share their story in hopes of helping others in the same position. So why not take advantage of this knowledge? Who better to teach others the signs of trafficking? Who better to help shape the laws and policies than those who lived through the horrifying experience?

Are We Asking the Right Questions?

The late Daughter of Charity Sister Mary Rose McGeady saved the original New York Covenant House from closure in the early 1990s. She worked tirelessly on behalf of the runaway youths in this country, including those who often end up trafficked. Her efforts to serve the country’s homeless youth dramatically helped expand the reach of Covenant House throughout the world, with 16 locations currently open in the U.S.

But there is always more work to be done. Surveys have shown that around 88% of human trafficking survivors saw a healthcare provider at least once during their time as a victim. While many healthcare providers are being trained more extensively on the signs of a trafficking victim, researchers at the Urban Institute in Washington D.C. created a tool that may also help to identify these victims.

This tool, which takes the form of a questionnaire, is being pretested at the Covenant House in Houston. It directly asks respondents a variety of questions including if anyone has ever forced or pressured them to perform sexual acts, forced or pressured them to take pornographic photos and/or videos, and if anyone has ever put their photo on the internet to find clients.

After being pretested at locations in four states, 25.8% of respondents answered “yes” to one or more sexual exploitation screening questions.

“The key takeaway is that there are reliable tools that can improve our ability to identify human trafficking victims to help navigate them to services that can help them recover,” said Diane Santa Maria, University of Texas Health School of Nursing professor.

You can read more about this new tool here.

Weekly Vatican Conference: Pope Francis on Human Trafficking

Pope Francis highlighted human trafficking at the Vatican conference this week. In a later interview regarding the Pope’s talk, Monsignor Robert Vitallo, Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), reported that the Pope condemned “trafficking in human beings as one of the most dramatic manifestations of the commercialization of others, a crime against humanity that disfigures both victims as well as those who carry it out.” The Pope stressed the importance of networking on an international level in order to eradicate this crime. Monsignor Vitillo spoke on the importance of global level advocacy in the “shaping of international policies that have been already prepared, but still need to be implemented by the governments, as well as, new policies that need to be developed.”

Lindsey King speaks on the problems connected with the implementation of the existing international laws, the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children and the United Nations Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air in her article “International Law and Human Trafficking” from Topical Research Digest: Human Rights and Human Trafficking. Enforcement of these laws is problematic, in part, due to the crime transcending borders and jurisdictions. Furthermore, there is a lack of law enforcement training and awareness, language barriers, and the hesitancy on the part of victims to speak out against their traffickers, just to name a few.

There is no simple solution to eradicate this crime against humanity. However, as a world community, we must work diligently to urge our political leaders to spend time, energy, and resources to enact the existing laws as well as to create new laws and policies that protect all human beings from being used as objects. In working together, we can enact change and save countless women, men, and children from those who prey on the weak and vulnerable.

Click here to read about Monsignor Vitillo’s thoughts.

Click here for the Topical Research Digest: Human Rights and Human Trafficking.


Blessed: A Reflection on the Border Experience

When walking the halls of Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., I made it a point to speak or make eye contact with those I met. I would pass many people, presumably patients, who could barely navigate. When I would inquire how someone was, I often received the answer: “I’m blessed.” This is my predominant thought when I consider my time in El Paso working with the newly-arrived migrants seeking asylum.

I worked at the shelter at Pastoral Center of the Diocese of El Paso, under the umbrella of Ruben Garcia and Annunciation House which has sheltered migrations for 40 years.

The migrants I encountered during my three week stint were mainly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. There were adults, most often the mother or father, who were accompanying minor children ranging from infants to teenagers. I saw only a few complete families.

When asylum seekers first arrive legally through a port of entry, they are placed in detention centers until their paperwork is completed. This paperwork includes the name of a sponsor and a date to appear in Immigration Court. When they arrive at the Pastoral Center, there was a brief orientation followed by a meal as all were very hungry when they arrived. Then, they begin the intake process wherein their sponsor(s) who is responsible for their transportation, are notified of their arrival. They can then access a complete change of clothing and toiletries from a large supply of donated items. They are also given access to a shower.

Three meals and snacks are provided each day. The sleeping quarters are simple canvas cots and blankets in a large room–men are on one side and women are on the other with their children. Those requiring minor medical care are treated and those who need more care are either transported to a hospital by ambulance or driven by a volunteer. The stay at the shelter is usually between one and five days. At the end, they are driven to the airport or bus station by a volunteer.

How was I blessed by this experience? First, I received the grace to leave my comfort zone to respond to this need in a small way. I observed firsthand, adults and children who had travelled hundreds of miles, most often by foot, to pursue a better life for their families. I was gratified by the irrepressible exuberance of the children who saw a pile of toys in the corner of the first room they entered and joyfully ran to start playing. I saw in the eyes of the adults, the exhaustion that was palpable, but still with the determination to continue this difficult journey.

I was constantly amazed at the inexhaustible generosity of the people of El Paso who donate food, clothing, personal items, and time week after week. These volunteers come from parishes, volunteer organization, and surrounding cities. I even met a local St. Vincent de Paul Society who had provided some needed shelving. The volunteers from other states whom I met were mostly grey-haired sister like me from various communities of religious women.

I was blessed by the realization that I have not yet, and probably never will, endure the hardships these migrants have endured on their journeys. It is an impossible-to-ignore reminder that I need to thank God every day for the blessings showered upon me. I continue to be blessed by the memories of this experience which remind me that I have no good reason to complain about inconsequential irritations.

Written by Sister Mary Powers, D.C.

Massage Parlor Trafficking

In recent weeks, the media has focused a lot on the case of the New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, and the charged brought against him for soliciting sex from a prostitute. The charges were part of an investigation by several law enforcement agencies that ended in raids and multiple arrests connected to nearly a dozen businesses in the area.

According to Polaris, “Human trafficking in massage parlors is the second most common type of trafficking reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.” A study done by Polaris in 2018 showed that “there are more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses (IBMs) – fronts for selling commercial sex – spread across every state in the United States. For a sense of scale, consider that Starbucks now has approximately 8,222 company-operated stores in the United States.”

In order to recognize these businesses, one must know the signs that differentiate them from a legitimate massage therapy establishment. The following signs will help one to recognize an illegal massage business.

  • Advertised prices are significantly lower than below market level (for instance, $40 for a one-hour massage in a city where $80 is the norm).
  • There will often be a back or side entrance to the establishment where clients need to be buzzed in.
  • Often covered windows (or no windows at all) and excessive security cameras are present.
  • One may notice a steady flow of primarily male clientele at all hours of the day and night.
  • One rarely (or never) sees the workers leave the location.
  • One can Google the name and location of the business to check if it’s posting sexually-suggestive advertisements online.

The best way to end this form of human trafficking is to pass strong laws across the country that standardize regulations for the massage therapy industry. Presently, 46 states have some regulations for massage therapists, but often the business operation and ownership do not have to follow of set of regulations.

Click here to read more about massage parlor trafficking.

Click here to read an account of a victim of massage parlor trafficking.

What would it be like to walk in their shoes?

I stepped into their story briefly after they had traveled a long journey from many distant places – Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Cuba, and more. They were seeking a better life, a safer place, somewhere to get work, to have enough to put food on the table, and to raise their children.

I arrived in El Paso in mid-November to volunteer for a few weeks at one of the eleven shelters in the city for those men, women, and children being released from detention camps. They had been detained for entering the United States without documents and stayed there for up to ten days, where they slept on the ground and received some food. They were released to go to one of the shelters when a sponsor, often a family member, was identified who would provide a ticket for them to travel elsewhere in the United States. These migrants received a date for an immigration appointment near their destination.

At our shelter, we received about 100 people each day. When they arrived, each adult was wearing an ankle monitor. Most had only the clothing on their backs or a small bag with a few items in it. They had the papers from the detention camp that identified them and their sponsor. We welcomed them and took their information so that we could contact the family or sponsor and get the information (date, time, destination, type of transportation) from their travel ticket.

While they were with us, we tried to care for them with some necessities. We offered them a place to sleep (usually a cot, but in some shelters, a bed), showers, personal supplies, and clothing. We provided meals three times a day–all prepared and served by the people of El Paso including families, restaurants, church groups, and others.

When we received word that a ticket had been purchased for an individual or a family, we arranged to take them to the bus station or the airport. We packed bags of food for each person for their trip. It was simple food – sandwiches, bottled water, snacks – but it had all been donated for them. Some of the families would be traveling on buses for three or four days. Most had no money and spoke no English.

On one of the trips to the bus station, another volunteer and I accompanied a man and his seven year old son. At the bus station, we helped him get his ticket. When the ticket agent asked him to sign for his tickets, he told the agent that he couldn’t write, so he signed with an “x.” We showed him where he would be getting on the bus and explained that it would take him three days for him to reach his destination. He had an itinerary with his ticket that showed where he would change buses on the second day. When we finished, he sadly told us that he couldn’t read. We looked for someone on the bus who might help him to make the change.

Airport trips were harder in many ways. One woman and her five year old daughter had tickets to get to Atlanta. She had never been on a plane before and was terrified of going through security. The border patrol and TSA had to check her papers and do a search. All she had were the sandwiches and food we had given her. They were kind to her, but had a job to do. The airline ticket agent was very helpful. She saw how afraid this woman was and realized that she would be lost getting off in Atlanta, especially because the airport is so large. She suggested that we call the family member and suggest that he get a security pass to allow him to meet her at the gate.

There are so many encounters and stories to tell. Each night, as I returned from the shelter, I held the faces and situations of those I had met before me. I marveled at the generosity and kindness of so many people who offered food, donations, and time to help these strangers in need. I thought of the families who would borrow money to buy a ticket for their family members and offer them a place in their homes. I remembered the kindness of those who had been detained to each other – sharing the little they had with one another and helping to care for the children. What would it be like to get on a plane when you had never flown before? Especially with no money and a few sandwiches and did not speak the language? When you didn’t really even know where you are going or how the process worked?

I am grateful I had the opportunity to talk to and accompany these people. In the time I was there, during Thanksgiving, I was helped in so many ways to be grateful for the blessings in my own life and to be more aware of others in need.

I caught a very small glimpse of what it would be like to walk in their shoes.

Written by Sister Joanne Dress, D.C.

From Slavery to Freedom

Today, we celebrate the Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, patron saint of human trafficking survivors.

Josephine was born in 1869 in a small village in Darfur. While still a young girl, she was kidnapped by slave traders and sold into slavery.

For over a decade, she was bought and sold many times and endured horrendous experiences, including torture by her various owners. She suffered branding and beatings on many occasions. It is said that once, her owners cut her 114 times and poured salt in her wounds to make sure that the scars remained.

Her captors asked her name, but in her fear as a result of her trauma, she was unable to remember the name her parents had given her at birth. Mocking her, they named her “Bakhita,” which means “fortunate.”

In 1883, Josephine was eventually taken to Italy where she served a family as a maid. While there, she came to know the Canossian Sisters of Venice.

It was during Josephine’s time around the Canossian Sisters that she began to learn about God and Catholicism. This was an experience during which she learned about the Gospel.

At the age of 30, Josephine was baptized into the Catholic faith on January 9, 1890. She took the name Josephine Margaret. Jospehine’s warm demeanor persisted up until her death on February 8, 1947. Pope Saint John Paul II canonized her on October 1, 2000.

The Vincentian priests sponsored the cause to canonize Josephine Bakhita. Father Bill Sheldon, C.M. served as the Postulator General in Rome and worked on her cause during his tenure. He confirmed that there was an affiliation between the Canossian Daughters of Charity and the “Vincentian Family.”

Josephine held no bitterness toward her owners. In fact she once said, “If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today.”