Seven months after the Center for the Women of New York announced an aggressive plan to combat human trafficking in Queens, significant hurdles still exist, group founder Ann Jawin said at a meeting in Borough Hall on Sept. 8.
In February, the center began applying pressure to Queens community newspapers with adult classifieds, which the center maintains are blatant ads for prostitution. Queens Chronicle Publisher Mark Weidler signed a pledge with the center, agreeing not to run such classifieds, though the paper did not run them before. Many of the ads have explicit, sexualized photos of women and suggestive verbiage.
The most blatant offender, which Jawin did not name at the meeting, has not undertaken a similar commitment against the ads.
The publisher of that paper, Jawin said, has recently agreed to meet with her again to discuss the issue.
It is unclear how many adult services offered are being provided by victims of human trafficking, but Jawin and colleagues speculate that many workers have been coercively corralled into the industry.
She and others affiliated with the center pointed out that the borough is a hotspot for the $13 billion human trafficking industry — especially in the context of the sex trade. Queens boasts two airports, they emphasized, and human trafficking is more profitable than the illicit drug trade, said Mandy Gor, a panelist and center member. Human slaves cost as low as $100 and constitute pure profit to traffickers.
Foreign women, center members say, are brought to Queens under the guise of a better life — a promise of an American visa, secretarial work and a safe home.
Instead, the group says, many of these women arrive only to have their passports withheld by their hosts. The women are forced to sign contracts to repay their plane ticket, room and board, and immigration costs to their pimps. So, the center points out, they have to work as prostitutes in venues such as massage parlors and outcall services, perpetually indebted. A lack of a social network and English language skills keeps these women enslaved and without recourse for justice, Jawin said.
Since so many of these victims likely work in the sex industry, Jawin and allies have largely devoted themselves to fighting against adult classifieds. She indicated, however, that the group has only targeted English-language newspapers, which limits the audience, she said.
If a newspaper does not agree to withhold adult classifieds, Jawin proposed contacting the businesses which display the paper and alerting them of the ads. If the businesses do not agree to stop offering the paper, the next option could be boycotting them, she said.
Some of the approximately 20 participants present also proposed everything from circulating a petition to legalizing of prostitution to combat the illicit sex trade.
Still, some were incensed that the police hadn't cracked down on the businesses presented by the ads. The general question: When it seems so obvious that an illegal industry — prostitution — is being advertised in papers, why haven’t there been more arrests?
Juan Toro, 108th Precinct community affairs officer and guest speaker at the meeting, said the NYPD does investigate suspected crimes, but that building a case can take months. The department, Toro said, is likely working on these issues without necessarily publicizing its efforts.
“They’re more than aware of things like this,” Toro said. “We know that prostitution is the oldest crime in history. We could believe something, but we have to have probable cause.”
Attendees ultimately asked about how to proceed. It remains unclear if the next move is circulating a petition or distributing a pamphlet on human trafficking. A draft pamphlet, however, was passed out and includes contact information for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, a group that helps victims.