Chairman, Global Politics and Security, Georgetown University Foreign Service School; Senior Adviser, Blue Star Strategies; and Co-Director, Transatlantic Renewal Project
Several years ago, a female journalist I knew was kidnapped on the way to work in Baghdad. After two harrowing weeks, 28-year-old Bahar (not her real name) was released by her hostage takers. She left for Europe and steadfastly refused to return home. It was not just her kidnappers whom Bahar feared. Back in Iraq, the male relatives on her father’s side were threatening Bahar with an honour killing because they were convinced she had been sexually abused in captivity. In Europe the tragedy for this gifted and promising young woman only deepened; she became trapped in a human trafficking network.
You try to combat this evil by saving one soul, and winning one case at a time.
Just days ago, in a landmark case, a wealthy businessman who had held five under-age Mozambican girls captive as sex-slaves for three years, was sentenced in Cape Town to eight life-terms for human trafficking and rape.This was the most severe sentence ever handed down for human trafficking in South Africa.
Human trafficking is a scourge of our times, and whether in sex trade or forced labour, women and girls tend to be especially vulnerable. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), more than half of all victims world-wide are female. In fact, the U.S. State Department estimates that, among the 600,000 to 800,000 people trafficked across international borders every year, nearly 70% female. Half are children.
“The term ‘trafficking’ doesn’t help us to understand the problem,” according to Mark Lagon, incoming President of Freedom House and former U.S. ambassador-at-large, directing American efforts to monitor and combat the problem. “Trafficking,” continues Lagon, “suggests movement across borders and for some, perhaps, minor criminality and rough edges of globalisation.” But “it’s fundamentally about the most extreme forms of exploitation,” he tells me. The numbers are staggering. According to Guy Ryder, the Director-General of the ILO, as many as 28 million people today may be victims in this modern day slave trade. According to the U.N., human trafficking is a 99 billion-dollar-a-year industry.
How can this be?
Traffickers prey on the weak, naive and vulnerable. In one common scenario, an individual is promised by a fraudulent employment agency a better job and life somewhere abroad. Upon arriving in the new country, said individual’s passport is confiscated. Victims are in instances threatened, drugged, physically and sexually abused. If you’re a poor, uneducated domestic worker caught up in such circumstances — let’s say in Dubai or Saudi Arabia where you have no family or friends, nor knowledge of the local language — where do you turn for help?
Traffickers depend on corrupt governments, weak rule of law, and misogynistic culture. That’s why most of the Middle East has a particularly dreadful record in human trafficking.
Traffickers also rely on our ignorance and collusion. As the case of Iraqi journalist Bahar suggests, trafficking is a problem in developed democracies as well. It can be difficult to uncover, and not just for law enforcement. Apparently nail salons — they spring up like mushrooms in cities like New York, Los Angeles and London — rely, not infrequently, on forced labour. You as a customer would never know.
In other circumstances, you should be able to guess there’s a problem.
A decade ago in Germany, a prominent commentator and talk show host became embroiled in a scandal, having been caught with prostitutes and cocaine in a well known Berlin hotel. A year later, I invited the gentleman in question to participate in a program of the Aspen Institute Germany, the organisation I led at the time. One of my board members protested vigorously.
I replied that the man had apologised and asked publicly for forgiveness from his wife, his colleagues, and his audience. He was an influential and articulate pundit. Was it ours to shun him? But then my board member pointed out something that had gone missing from the entire debate and ensuing apology. Young Ukrainian women in Berlin, my trustee noted, are almost surely not in Germany engaged in prostitution on a voluntary basis.
No one had spoken about this. He had a completely valid point.
LOS ANGELES – A Long Beach woman pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to working with her son to prostitute a local runaway beginning when the girl was only 15, and another young woman beginning when she was 18.
Sharilyn Kae Anderson, 46, pleaded guilty to conspiring with her son to engage in sex trafficking, following a joint probe by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD). In a plea agreement filed in U.S. District court, Anderson admitted she and her son used force, threats of force or coercion against the adult victim. Anderson now faces a potential penalty of life in federal prison.
Anderson’s guilty plea comes nine days after her son, Joshua Jerome Davis, 23, pleaded guilty to the sex trafficking conspiracy, as well as two substantive counts of sex trafficking of a minor and an adult by force, threats of force or coercion. The charge of sex trafficking of a child by force carries a maximum sentence of life in prison and a mandatory minimum penalty of 10 years. The sex trafficking of an adult by force, threats of force, or coercion, or any combination of these means, carries a maximum sentence of life in prison and a mandatory minimum penalty of 15 years.
Anderson was arrested in August 2013 by LBPD vice detectives and HSI special agents. Davis was arrested outside a residence he leased in North Las Vegas. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.
Following his arrest, Davis was transferred to Los Angeles to face criminal prosecution. At the time of his arrest, investigators located and rescued the minor victim who was with Anderson.
The LBPD initially opened the investigation after the minor victim’s father reported her missing. The ensuing investigation uncovered evidence that Davis, assisted by his mother, had prostituted the victim at several hotels in Southern California and transported her across state lines to Nevada to engage in commercial sex in Las Vegas.
“Human sex trafficking will not be tolerated in our city, especially when our children are victimized,” said Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna. “We have made tremendous progress with our efforts to combat these horrific crimes. We will continue to work collaboratively with our partners to successfully investigate and prosecute those responsible.”
According to court documents, Davis first communicated with the minor victim on Facebook in 2010, when she was 14, leading to an initial meeting in early 2012. Several months later, the minor victim created an account on a website commonly used to promote prostitution and escort services. Anderson helped facilitate the prostitution scheme by booking hotel rooms and transporting both victims to hotels to engage in prostitution when her son was unavailable. Anderson also threatened the adult victim to intimidate her to continue making money for her son by prostituting.
“The coercion of vulnerable minors into prostitution is unconscionable,” said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for HSI Los Angeles. “HSI will continue to work closely with its law enforcement partners to bring those engaged in the sexual exploitation of juveniles to justice.”
Anderson and Davis both pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder. Anderson’s sentencing is scheduled for May 18. Davis will be sentenced May 4.
Victims of human trafficking, or individuals who have knowledge of trafficking activity, may also contact the Long Beach Police Department’s Vice Investigations Detail at 562-570-7219. To remain anonymous, the public may visit www.lacrimestoppers.org.
As the New England Patriots were celebrating their thrilling Super Bowl XLIX win Sunday night, law enforcement around the nation were observing a more somber victory.
At least 570 would-be sex buyers (or johns) and 23 so-called sex traffickers — men taken into custody on charges of pimping, trafficking or promoting prostitution — were taken off the streets in the “National Day Of Johns Arrests” effort, Illinois’ Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced Monday.
The nationwide sex-trafficking sting operation, led by the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, ran from Jan. 15 to Feb. 1.
“Sex trafficking continues to destroy countless lives, and this broad national movement should send a strong message to prospective johns that their ‘hobby’ is much more than a ‘victimless’ crime,” Dart said in a statement. “It‟s particularly meaningful that this sting culminated on the day of the Super Bowl, which unfortunately has emerged as a prominent haven for sex trafficking.”
“We’re trying to raise awareness best we can,” Cook County Sheriff spokesman Ben Breit told The Huffington Post, explaining that the timing of the sting is largely symbolic. “Tying it to the Super Bowl is a helpful way to accomplish that.”
Dart’s office started the first such operation in 2011. The 2015 installment is the largest yet, comprising roughly 70 jurisdictions in 17 states, including Nevada, Arizona and Massachusetts.
On Monday, the Cook County Sheriff’s office said 54 women and 14 juveniles nationwide were “rescued” (taken into custody but connected with mental health, drug abuse, domestic abuse and other services).
Other highlights of the operation included Phoenix police recovering several women who said they had been trafficked in for the Super Bowl. Cincinnati police also arrested a pair of sex traffickers who had been using public computers at a local library to post prostitution ads online, according to a release. Las Vegas Police, meanwhile, took a man into custody who was facing federal human trafficking charges in Ohio; they also arrested a john on probation for rape.
The majority of the busts were made through “dates” arranged on the classified ad site, Backpage.com (and to a lesser extent, Craigslist). Dart said Backpage.com has for years been known as the leading online marketplace for prostitution, bringing in millions of dollars a month. Backpage’s exact revenue is unknown, but in 2013, classifieds analyst company AIM Group estimated Backpage’s take was $4.2 million in a single month.
Backpage.com general counsel Liz McDougall told The Huffington Post via email:
We stand firm in our belief that a domestic website that combats child sex trafficking domestically in collaboration with law enforcement is far more beneficial to victims than driving the problem to underground and offshore sites. And we remain committed to effective measures of prevention and successful prosecution of this heinous crime.
Dart acknowledges his anti-trafficking and prostitution efforts have their critics — primarily people who think law enforcement are merely criminalizing a transaction that should have long ago been legalized. But whether the crime is called sex trafficking, pimping or prostitution, Dart says he sees “no distinction.”
“That’s always been a tough one for me,” Dart told The Huffington Post. “How is it any different when a man who gives a woman food or shelter, or coerces her with drugs or abuse, than when someone is brought in from outside the country.’”
And while Dart concedes there are some women who engage in sex work of their own choosing and without the involvement of a pimp, he says such instances are rare — and still unsafe.
He says the next step is to continue expanding the operation to include more law enforcement agencies in more states.
“Its all about building awareness, about staying on the problem,” Dart said. “There’s no silver bullet for this.”
This story has been updated to include comment from Backpage.com.