Human trafficking becomes an ecumenical target
Linda Bloom, Oct 17, 2008
UMNS PHOTO BY PHILLIP E. JENKS/NCC
Rani Hong tells how she was sold to a child broker in India at age 7 during an ecumenical conference co-sponsored by the United Methodist Women’s Division.
By Linda Bloom
United Methodist News Service
NEW YORK—When Rani Hong was 7 years old, she was sold to a child broker in India, subjected to beatings and starvation, and eventually sold again to an illegal international adoption network.
Her story has a happy ending: her adoptive American mother, unaware of what had happened to her, showered her with love. But she has no kind words for the abductors who kept her from her family and her country. “They changed my name, my birthdate, my age . . . all in the name of profit,” she said.
Mrs. Hong was among the speakers offering perspectives on the complex issue of human trafficking during a Sept. 29-Oct. 1 ecumenical conference at the United Methodist-owned Church Center for the United Nations.
The conference was sponsored by the Justice for Women Working Group of the National Council of Churches and the Women’s Division, United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. The event drew 70 registered participants, including young women, representing 15 denominations, according to the Rev. Ann Tiemeyer, the NCC’s program director for women’s ministry.
“I believe the ripple effect of networking that happened at the conference will create countless results,” Ms. Tiemeyer said, “from the simplest action of one participant on Sunday morning sharing information with a friend sitting next to them in the pew, to a more coordinated ecumenical advocacy partnerships to challenge, change and create local, state and national laws that will support victims/survivors.”
Mrs. Hong and her husband, Trong Hong, have established the Tronie Foundation to promote education about human trafficking, lobby for policy changes and assist survivors. Mr. Hong witnessed acts of murder and torture as a child among the Vietnamese “boat people.” Both of their stories have been featured on television on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Mrs. Hong did not learn the full circumstances of her abduction until she found her birth mother when she was 28 years old. She spoke about how child brokers trick mothers or fathers into giving up their children. “They don’t see the good in a person. All they can see is a commodity—something that can be sold over and over and over again,” she said.
According to the Polaris Project, “an estimated 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked annually in the United States alone. The number of U.S. citizens trafficked within the country is even higher. An estimated 200,000 American children are at high risk for trafficking into the sex industry each year.”
Helene Hayes, a Roman Catholic Sister of the Good Shepherd, has done extensive research of how women are sold again and again in the sex trafficking trade. The social policy analyst has traveled to Southeast Asia, Europe, Saipan and parts of the United States to interview 65 trafficked women for an upcoming book.
Her direct quotes from some of those women are sobering:
“Being obligated to have forced sex, you are nothing. You are only merchandise.”
“I complied because I did not want to die.”
“One of the girls jumped from a building and died and I envied her.”
The women spoke to her, Ms. Hayes told conference participants, because “they know in a very deep, incisive way that silence will seal the fate of other trafficked women from around the world.”
Calling trafficking a modern form of slavery, she believes that showing trafficked women as “full human beings” through her book is a first step in solving the problem.
A less recognized form of human trafficking exists among agricultural workers, according to Virginia Nesmith, executive director of the National Farm Worker Ministry and a member of the United Church of Christ.
Noting that the United States has 2 to 3 million farm workers, she said “the great majority [of workers] are immigrants and so they are among the vulnerable populations for enslavement.”
In September, five residents of Immokalee, Fla., pleaded guilty to enslaving more than a dozen Mexican and Guatemalan workers by holding them on family property, beating and chaining them and forcing them to work in farm fields in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. In another recent case, a family was picking up homeless men in Florida, providing them with drugs, and then forcing them to work in farm fields.
Farm workers are often hidden down isolated dirt roads, out of view to the general public. “The first time I saw a slave camp, I didn’t realize until later what it was,” Ms. Nesmith said.
United Methodist Women has addressed the issue of human trafficking, including child labor, for the past few years, according to Glory Dharmaraj, a Women’s Division executive. “Increasingly, we feel the face of global migration is female, the face of poverty is female . . . and now I sense the face of human trafficking is female,” she said.
The U.S. State Department estimates that 80 percent of trafficking victims are female and about half are under 18 years old.
Dr. Dharmaraj will explore the possibility of future UMW trainings to create awareness of trafficking and work with law enforcement agencies as the organization continues its mission “to stand in solidarity with the least of these who do not have an advocate.”
The true scope of the human trafficking problem is difficult to assess because statistical information has not been compiled over the years, according to Laura Lederer, senior director for Global Projects on Trafficking in Persons at the State Department.
Although an estimated 1.1 million people are trafficked across international borders each year, including more than 14,000 across U.S. borders, “that doesn’t take into account the internal trafficking,” she said, noting that as many as 20 to 25 million could be enslaved worldwide.
“Ending this contemporary form of slavery is a priority for the United States,” Dr. Lederer said. “We had to have a law that reached the whole pipeline of activity.”
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, also called TVPA, takes a victim-centered approach, she said. The congressional legislation increased penalties to traffickers from 5 years to 20 years to life and mandated the creation of an interagency government task force that meets annually and a policy group that meets quarterly. “It created the political will at the very top levels,” she explained.
The State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons assesses and rates 194 countries annually “to tell the world” whether problems of trafficking are being addressed. Those who lag on the issue risk losing funding from the United States. Task forces coordinated by the Department of Justice link federal and local law enforcement officers to pursue traffickers.
“Rescue & Restore,” a program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, helps identify and assist victims of human trafficking, and the Department of Labor will issue a list of products made with child or forced labor.
Survivors of trafficking “have a great deal to offer” in tackling the problem, Dr. Lederer pointed out. One survivor returned to India with law enforcement officers and led them to a brothel where she had been hidden behind a wall, at the age of 11, during police raids. “They opened that wall and found a dozen more children that day,” Dr. Lederer said. “They were able to rescue them.”
Carol Smolenski, a longtime advocate of trafficking survivors, said she is optimistic about the new laws, programs and support services now available.
As one of the founders of ECPAT-USA in 1991, which now stands for “End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes,” she believes the legislation passed in 2003—which makes it possible to prosecute American sex tourists when they return to the United States—is a helpful deterrent. ECPAT-USA also promotes a code of conduct for the travel industry.
Problems remain at the state level, Ms. Smolenski said, where child prostitutes under age 18 are simply labeled as “bad kids” and arrested and prosecuted rather than helped. “They’re not seen as victims of trafficking,” she explained. “They’re not seen as children in need of assistance.”
At its Sept. 22 governing board meeting, the NCC approved a resolution on human trafficking endorsing the conference and encouraging member communions to further educate congregations about the issue and to advocate for policies and practices to end human trafficking.
The 2008 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, approved a resolution calling for the abolition of trafficking.
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