Portland at crossroads of human trafficking

The Portland Alliance, April 2006


In a city famous for its politicized public citizenry, the nonprofit civic organization City Club of Portland stands out as a respected forum for community education. Its Friday Forums series was established to bring pressing civic issues to concerned citizens, and on Feb. 17 the topic of pressing social concern discussed was human trafficking.

Portland is in the midst of a slow awakening on just how pervasive modern human slavery is here in the United States and globally. The problem of slavery has always plagued humans, but globalization in the past 15 years has exacerbated the situation. In that time, trafficking in human beings has reached epidemic proportions as desperate searches for work have been fuelled by economic disparity, gender inequality and the disruption of traditional livelihoods.

Traffickers face few risks and earn huge profits, greater profits than drug and arms trafficking by some estimates, because unlike drugs and weapons, human slave labor is repeatedly exploitable. Criminals prosecuted for trafficking drugs receive higher sentences than those found guilty of trafficking human beings into slavery.

Consistent statistics on the number of victims and size of organized criminal trafficking rings are nearly impossible because trafficking is by its nature an underground business. Efforts are currently being taken by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to develop a database comparing statistics gathered around the world. By most estimates, the overwhelming majority of victims are female and trafficking for prostitution accounts for about half of all trafficking while exploitive farm work, factory work, and domestic servitude make up the other half.

As the problem has grown, so has the attention the issue is receiving among human rights organizations and governments tasked with responding to the increase in victims. Following the lead of Amnesty International, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and other international organizations committed to abolishing slavery, this spring the Daywalka Foundation will set up at Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government to continue its anti-trafficking advocacy. Daywalka Executive Director Christopher Carey spoke at City Club’s Friday Forum about the scope of the problem, “The U.S. State Department estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 people a year are trafficked across international borders. The International Labor Organization estimates that upwards of 12 million people live as slaves as a result of trafficking in the world today. In South Asia this problem is particularly acute.”

Carey is a lawyer who has spent the past few years building the Daywalka Foundation to the international success story it has become. Started by activist and humanitarian Mark West, a close friend of Carey, Daywalka’s original focus was on educating young Nepalese girls to keep them from being trafficked. Raising money so girls could attend school is necessary because sexism that favors boy children over girl children results in uneducated girls particularly vulnerable to traffickers. In the spirit of focusing energies on girls and women, the name Daywalka is a pseudonym for the first trafficking survivor who told her story to the founders ten years ago.

Supplying school fees was helpful but advocates wanted to try a more integrated approach, so money was raised to send students from Seattle University to Nepal to learn in deeper detail how to provide more ambitious, longer-lasting aid. One of these students, Sahar Romani, went on to become a program assistant and created Kalam, a poetry curriculum for stigmatized youth that helps build self-confidence and the student’s thirst for more education.

It’s estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of trafficking victims are females, therefore women from a variety of castes were trained as teachers and to become positive female role models to the girls around them. Information about the tricks and lies of prosperity told by traffickers and pimps are part of that education.

But the education of victims did not address the corruption of law enforcement and judges. Corrupt courts rife with bribery from brothel-owners and other profiteers don’t effectively prosecute criminals, and too often children rescued from brothels were placed back into the hands of traffickers.

Carey elaborates, “One of the most effective ways we have found to insure justice to victims and survivors is hiring private attorneys to help represent those victims and survivors. They help provide them access to all services of justice, not just healthcare but prosecution, reintegration and repatriation, and job training as necessary.”

In 2002, political instability in Nepal became particularly heated and it was determined Daywalka’s continued presence could put their colleagues in danger. The program was disrupted and energies turned toward preventing trafficking in the United States.

Daywalka’s primary model has been using Women and Children Security Resource Centers (WCSRC) to create collaborations between law enforcement, social service providers, public health agencies, shelters and other nongovernmental organizations. The joint venture with Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government will largely focus on integrating Portland’s services in much the same way. Other goals of the merger are to produce a comprehensive anti-trafficking library and to put on a training conference that would train public servants likely to encounter trafficking victims in identifying victims and provide them the help they need.

Also high on Daywalka’s agenda is the passage of Oregon’s first anti-trafficking legislation. The past few years have seen incredible movement by the federal government to address the issue. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was signed into law in October 2000 and was amended in 2003 to close loopholes and provide more specific protections for victims. In April 2003, the PROTECT Act was signed into law to allow prosecutions of Americans who travel abroad to abuse minors.

The Bush Administration has taken most of the credit for the recent mobilization against slavery, but the true story is one of many people involved in a bipartisan cooperation all too rare in modern American politics. Back in 1999 the late Paul Wellstone introduced the International Trafficking of Women and Children Victim Protection Act in the Senate and his legacy is well-known to liberal and conservative anti-trafficking advocates. In January 2006 President Bush signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act after Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) joined with Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) to push forth the anti-trafficking legislation. Rep. Maloney has also pioneered against trafficking by working with New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to put sex tour operators in New York out of business.

States are following the federal government’s lead in pursuing traffickers within their borders. The first state to pass specifically anti-trafficking legislation was Hawaii in 2004. Act 92 makes it a felony offense, with a sentence of up to five years in prison, to sell or offer to sell travel services for the purpose of engaging in prostitution and authorizes suspension or revocation of a travel agency registration for violations. Most states have laws against promoting prostitution, but Hawaii is the first state to specifically criminalize the activities of sex tour operators by recognizing the link between prostitution and trafficking: “The purpose of this Act is to promote and protect the human rights of women and girls exploited by sex tourists . . . In so doing, the legislature forcefully declares Hawaii’s unequivocal opposition to any form of sex tourism, whether it is child sex tourism or sex tourism involving adults.”

Because Oregon is situated between California and Washington and those two states have the largest trafficking problems in the country, Portland is a conduit city as well as a destination for criminal rings that run up and down the West coast. Liz Rogers from Catholic Charities, a service-providing agency for trafficking victims, spoke after Christopher Carey at the City Club Friday Forum about the difficulties in going after traffickers when Oregon has no anti-trafficking law, “Most trafficking victims want to be safe and they want this to stop. They want the people that are doing this to be stopped and to be punished. It’s really difficult when you’re working just under a federal law without state legislation support to go after traffickers.”

A working group recently formed to create an anti-trafficking bill for Oregon. Advocates from the Daywalka Foundation, Catholic Charities and other local organizations dedicated to stopping slavery in Oregon are planning to introduce the bill, LC38, in the next legislative session. Still in its very early draft form, the bill would make involuntary servitude punishable with imprisonment and fines. If it passes it would place Oregon among Hawaii, Washington, Florida and Texas as states with anti-trafficking laws. A number of other states have formed legislative task groups on human trafficking and have bills pending, but Oregon’s position on the domestic trafficking route and longstanding reputation as a progressive leader for the rest of the country make passing an anti-trafficking law here a priority.

“Whenever I talk to my students about these things,“ says Carey, “they always accuse me of bumming them out and depressing them because they feel helpless and overwhelmed. But whenever I travel overseas I’m always struck by the resilience of the human spirit and humans to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.”

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