Last year, approximately 21 million people were trafficked worldwide.
While the number is staggering, the process of human trafficking is full of misconceptions.
Contrary to popular belief, most cases do not involve kidnapping women, throwing them into a truck and holding them hostage in small, dark rooms to be used as sex slaves, as so many movies, books and TV shows would lead you to believe.
In fact, most trafficking of people against their will doesn’t involve sexual acts at all.
“Trafficking is a very exciting topic in that there are a lot of different ways it has been framed,” Ivy Suriyopas, the director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said at a forum in Queens last week. “For someone to be trafficked, they don’t have to be moved from one place to another or participate in a particular industry. By definition, it’s working against your own will.”
Surprisingly, out of the 21 million people trafficked — 55 percent of whom were women — only 4.5 million were made to perform sexual services, according to AALDEF. A majority of trafficking is for forced labor on farms, construction sites and other areas.
Those statistics were revealed May 1 at the Queens Pride House in Jackson Heights, during a forum on human trafficking, specifically of Asian women, held to address the common misconceptions and legal issues.
Tauno Biltsted, who works as an intensive case manager for the Safe Horizon group’s Anti-Trafficking Program, addressed another common misconception: abuse.
“The majority of the women we work with have never been hit or severely abused,” he said. “But what does tend to happen is they are threatened with deportation by the person who is trafficking them. They will also threaten to hurt their family back in their home country.”
But the solution to human trafficking is not an easy one.
To combat forced prostitution, the NYPD has taken a more aggressive approach by targeting and arresting traffickers, clients and even drivers who take the women to and from clients’ homes.
“Going after clients implies that sex trafficking is the only kind of trafficking going on when we know that’s not the case,” Urban Justice Center staff attorney Lynly Egyes said. “Also, quite commonly, clients are the people who help get the women out of these situations.”
In fact, Egyes said, most trafficking victims aren’t found by law enforcement at all and that it is usually someone on the inside, such as a client, chauffeur or voluntary sex worker, who helps a victim escape.
Egyes also cited the shutting down of Craigslist’s “adult section” as an example of how aggressive police initiatives can backfire.
“For those sex workers who were doing the work voluntarily, Craigslist was a safe way to do their work,” she said. “Craigslist was also very cooperative with the NYPD when it comes to finding trafficking circles and dangerous conditions. But to shut that area down completely gets rid of that source and that outlet, which just pushes things further down.”
Egyes did say that law enforcement should not be eliminated completely from finding solutions but that there needs to be a focus on identifying possible victims.
“There needs to be a partnership with the people who are trying to help and those who know how to help and understand what works and what doesn’t,” she said.
A majority of the women trafficked through Queens are from south and eastern Asian countries, which poses a problem when it comes to identifying victims.
“In the Asian community you have this notion to ‘save face,’ which makes it difficult in getting the women out of their situations,” Se Yeon Kang, a Project Free manager for the New York Asian Women’s Center.
Kang added that generally, the women brought to the NYAWC are women who were arrested in massage parlors for performing “intimate” service without a license, or for prostitution.
“When they are brought into us, they are in a very fragile state,” she said. “You don’t want to just hit them with a bunch of questions about their life because many of them aren’t used to making decisions on their own. We start off slow.”
Initial questions Kang and her colleagues may be as simple as ‘Would you like tea or water?’ or ‘Would you like to sit here or there?’
Every state in the country has anti-trafficking laws. In New York, when trafficking victims are found, they are issued T Visas for temporary residencies as many of them are in the country illegally.
“That T Visa removes the worry of being deported, which is something many have been threatened with by their traffickers,” Egyes said. “This way, they can focus on moving forward and getting help and eventually getting a Green Card.”
Each panelist acknowledged that there will be no quick solution and as traffickers become wiser to trafficking laws and procedures, the system will have to adapt.
“Training and education are vital,” Suriyopas said. “There are a lot of misconceptions out there and we need to be on the same level.”
The forum, attended by 40 or so people, was the debut event of the Popular Resistance and Non-Violent Action Project, which is funded by the North Star Fund and is being co-sponsored by the NYAWC, Safe Horizon and the New York Association for Gender Advocacy.
Future events will include a “Know Your Rights” workshop, during which members of the transgendered community, who the speakers said have often been brutalized by various groups, including the NYPD, can learn about their civil rights.
Information on those events, as well as other services and programs offered at the Queens Pride House, can be found on its website queenspridehouse.org.