By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
In movies and other popular portrayals of human trafficking, recovery of the victims is where the narrative often ends. Yet for NGOs, law enforcement, and victims, recovery is actually the beginning.
It is the beginning of rebuilding lives, pursuing prosecution, and healing.
“There are [victims] who don’t even know what city they’re in. If they were to walk out the front door, they wouldn’t know where to go,” said Lieutenant Eric Sano of the Seattle Police Department’s Vice and High Risk Victims Unit. “They’re afraid that if they’re found out, they’re going to lose — as weird as it sounds — the one sense of stability they have.”
When Nom, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was first referred to the Asian & Pacific Islander Women & Family Safety Center (APIWFSC), she felt that no one could understand the traumas she faced.
“Some of the clients we serve come from poverty backgrounds where they have very few options and very few opportunities. So when they come here [and receive] anything more than what they’re [expecting], it’s not anything they would be able to understand or be able to relate to. It’s not even a thought to them that they would have a voice,” said Kathleen Morris, program manager of the Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network.
“But there are people we help that do have a voice in their home country, and they just got caught in something that they really have no control over,” continued Morris, pointing out that stereotypes about trafficking victims are often inaccurate.
Fear as a cage
Some victims gain legal entry into the country through temporary or student visas. However, they have to overstay their limit due to traffickers withholding travel documents to prevent them from leaving.
“Their traffickers will then have their hook in them by saying, ‘You’re complicit in your [over]stay here. You’re going to jail. You’re going to be deported. I can keep you out of jail. Just do what I tell you to do, and I’ll take care of you,’” said Sano.
In the meantime, victims are forced into sex or other types of labor. They are kept silent with the threat of deportation and the threat of possible assaults on them and their families. Threats against victims and their family members are easily carried out in countries where traffickers are protected by law enforcement.
“A victim tried to escape once and was told if [she] escapes again, [her] family will be killed. She did try again and a couple of days later, she found out that her husband died,” said Hao Nguyen, APIWFSC human trafficking case worker, referring to a case from a partner organization.
“These threats are very real, and it’s not always carried out by some crime syndicate. It could just be the power dynamic that is carried out between an employer and an employee that is a completely different power dynamic that we’re used to culturally,” said Morris.
In Morris’ experience, culture plays a role in how communities understand trafficking. She accompanied Assistant U.S. Attorney Ye-Ting Woo on a detail providing technical assistance to the Taiwan government on investigating and prosecuting human trafficking.
“When we were in Taiwan, we heard a lot of people saying, ‘That way of treating workers is just general practice here, taking their immigration documents or holding their wages until the end of the season.’ We kept repeating, ‘Well, that might be general practice, but now, you have a law that says that is not OK,’” said Morris.
Newly enacted laws alone cannot overcome all obstacles that confront a social issue like trafficking.
Efforts to turn the tide in human trafficking are aimed at promoting the recognition and intolerance of forced labor in communities. Morris thinks that with the help of the media, law enforcement, border patrol, government workers, local businesses, and concerned citizens, human trafficking issues will be brought into community discussions, club meetings, and job trainings more often, making it an issue that cannot be ignored.
“Whether it’s a social or business community, this is a social and cultural standard that we set for ourselves. It sounds so scary when we talk about social or societal changes, but that’s what has to happen with this issue. That is exactly what has happened with domestic violence and sexual assault, things that, at one time, were not talked about at all.”
Victims become neighbors
Upon being recovered, victims are brought to a safe place where case workers can conduct intakes, that is, speak with them and assess their needs. Case workers offer victims services like housing, health exams, and counseling. Victims face the daunting task of starting anew, from finding the nearest supermarket and learning local bus routes to taking language and job placement courses.
In about three months, they will have a chance to meet with an immigration lawyer.
“Once [our clients] escape [their trafficking] situation and they’re not being told what to do, they don’t know how to utilize their time. When they’re given time [and have moments when they have] nothing to do, they start to think about what happened to them, which can cause severe depression,” said Anne Ko, human trafficking case worker at the Refugee Women’s Alliance.
T-Visas and Continued Presence allow victims to remain and work in the country if victims assist in an investigation or prosecution of trafficking.
In order to stay, victims must also prove that they would suffer extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm if they were removed from the United States. Going home after the harrowing experience is not an option for victims lacking adequate protection and resources in their home country. The process, from victim recovery to acquiring permanent residency, can take years.
“Many of them wish they can go back, but [their perception of] what’s waiting for them there has been so damaged by their experience that it changes their thinking. We try to help them think through [their options]. ‘If you go back, is it safe, and what options do you have?’” said Bincy Jacob, executive director of APIWFSC.
While participating in a law enforcement investigation, Nom had to revisit traumatic memories from the two years she was forced to work as a masseuse and prostitute by her trafficker, a well-known and trusted figure from her home country.
After leaving her trafficking situation, Nom suffered from sleeping disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress. Now reunited with her son, Nom currently works as a nursing assistant and hopes to become a nurse.
Over the last 10 years, as anti-trafficking efforts received federal funding and took root, the national recession meant that local NGOs and law enforcement suffered acute growing pains, trying to assist the large influx of recovered victims with limited resources.
“We’ve had good years where we’ve had a stream of funding, [but] there are certain times when funding has come to an end, or even if we do get renewed, the funding for this issue gets cut by half,” said Ko.
In 2010, the Seattle Police Vice and High Risk Victims Unit, which was already handling domestic trafficking and other cases, was assigned to take on all cases involving foreign victims of trafficking.
With a decrease in funding, the Vice and High Risk Victims Unit went from having two detectives to one detective investigating all reports of foreign victims of trafficking for the greater tri-county area of King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties, said Sano.
“I think it’s one of those things where, when the issue first came to light, when [the] laws [were] set in place in 2000, there was a lot of attention from the government to eradicate this problem, so there was a lot of funding available. Over the years, it’s become less of a priority, but the issue still remains, and there are still victims out there,” said Ko. ♦
If you suspect any form of slavery or exploitation, contact the national hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
This story was written with the support of Sea Beez, a capacity building program funded by the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Matching Fund.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.