While most people have heard of human trafficking, they dismiss it as another media headline in a seemingly endless parade of negative news. Human trafficking is better described as modern-day slavery, and is a dilemma that I have seen first-hand in countries around the world. The Palermo Protocols define human trafficking as, “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, with the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for exploitation.”
Some people confuse human trafficking with the sex trade. While sex trafficking is a form of human trafficking, they are distinct. For example, I have several very good friends who were forced to work as domestic workers.
My first encounter with human trafficking was when I was deployed to Qatar. I was in Doha on a day pass with a group of co-workers. We were at a mall whose name I can’t remember, and a casually dressed Filipino woman approached us. She asked me specifically if I wanted to go for a massage. We had been briefed that “massage” was street code for sex. I declined, but the girl looked frightened by the decline as she hurried away. A short time later, a group of men approached our group, wanting to know why we had declined the woman’s offer. We began to realize that we were right in the middle of a human trafficking scenario. We got out of the mall as fast as possible, and notified the first police officer we saw. He seemed bored by our concern as he said he would go check on it. Once we returned to our air force base, we reported the incident to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). Soon after, the mall was blacklisted for military personnel to enter.
After that incident, I started to research human trafficking. I found out that Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia are notorious for human trafficking. During my next tour in the Middle East, I was stationed in Saudi Arabia, and I made friends with a Filipina nurse working at one of the military hospitals in our area. On more than one occasion, she would talk to me about her friends and relatives who were domestic workers overseas. As overseas domestic workers, their passports were confiscated by their employers, and they were forced to labor ridiculous hours for low wages. These captive workers were often sexually harassed by their employers. If they were considered non-compliant, their employers would severely beat them. I met with some of them once they escaped their situation. They said the hiring agency they had gone through was part of a scam to lure young women into slavery conditions. We need to understand that most young women who apply for jobs as domestic workers encounter personal poverty as part of the job. Through my interviews I learned that Filipinos are raised with horror stories about domestic workers abroad. Yet, desperate to care for their families, these women are willing to take the risk. The dedication they feel toward their families takes precedence over the personal risks and abusive behavior they may face.
My interviewees shared that once their conditions became unbearable, they would try to cancel their contract, or at least not to renew it. Because they could not recover their passports in order to leave, their only course of action was to run and seek shelter at the Philippines Consulate in the country they worked in. During my five year tenure in Saudi Arabia with three different companies, I befriended three young women who were maids by profession. As I learned the details of their domestic service, I noticed that my new friends were in a similar scenario: passport confiscated, confined to quarters outside of work, victims of constant wage withholding, verbal and racial harassment, and they could only go out to shop for food. In essence, they were treated like slaves instead of domestic workers.
Because Americans tend to take their constitutional liberties for granted, I think that we become blind to the reality of human trafficking. I thought for a long time that other countries had the same kinds of freedom that Americans have. However, my travels across the world have shown me that human trafficking can be found in any country. While I was living and working in the Philippines, I went to Japan as a company representative. While there, I noticed that women are flashed up on digital billboards that casually advertise sexual rendezvous. I asked my interpreter about the billboards. She cautioned me against the solicitations because Americans are perceived as targets; and since the women work for gangsters, my interpreter said I could easily find myself in a bad situation.
During my stay in the Philippines, I made friends with one young lady who, after she lost her job, had to become an underground club dancer due to financial reasons. Unlike club dancers in the U.S., these underground club dancers are actually prostitutes. As my friend and I grew closer, I wondered if she knew exactly what she had gotten herself into as an underground club dancer. She knew she was being exploited, and she knew that what she was doing was illegal. She explained that she would do anything to take care of her loved ones.
After my travels around the globe, I still find her human trafficking story is the saddest of them all. Desperate to provide for her family, she volunteered herself to be a prostitute. Her employers preyed on her and paid her just enough to scrape a life together. This is a common occurrence in the Philippines, especially near locations where large numbers of foreigners live and work. Stories of girls as young as 13-years-old who are exploited through the sex trafficking industry to profit off foreigners are common. In fact, it’s well-known that Filipino parents would, in essence, “sell” their children, especially girls to human traffickers, to pay off some form of debt.
It’s not always about violence. According to the Polaris Project, “Most human traffickers use psychological means such as tricking, defrauding, manipulating or threatening victims into providing commercial sex or exploitative labor.” Polaris further states that some victims are so effectively manipulated that they do not comprehend that they are under the control of another person. Through my personal research, I learned that human trafficking isn’t restricted to developing countries. According to the Department of Homeland Security, in the United States in 2016 alone, 435 victims of human trafficking were identified and assisted. This led to 631 people being convicted of human trafficking violations.
A further incredibly concerning issue I learned of was the recruitment, conscription, and outright kidnapping of children for use as soldiers. According to Child Soldiers International, more than 240 million children around the world are living in conflict-ridden countries. As of 2017, at least 19,000 children were participating in the war in South Sudan. More than 3000 cases of recruitment through various means were carried out by armed groups in DR Congo. As many as 203 claims of child suicide bombers were verified in Nigeria and Cameroon.
I find the reports of child soldier recruitment in the Middle East the most heinous form of human trafficking. Imagine a child forced to fight in a war. Boys and girls who come from poverty-stricken families. Children forced to carry weapons and kill. While I can’t lay claim to any direct encounter, I have talked to American soldiers who have witnessed child soldier recruitment first-hand. Human traffickers prey upon these poor souls like black-winged vultures that only see an opportunity to make profit. For so many victims, the laws of their countries are loosely written on the prevention of human trafficking. Worse, due to corruption and politics, such illegal acts are often overlooked, or the law is simply not enforced.
But as I mentioned earlier, human trafficking is a problem at our back door. Human trafficking in Orange County, California, has reached epidemic proportions. According to the Epoch Times, there have been 924 human trafficking victims rescued between 2015 and 2019. One might think that human trafficking makes its way into our communities through immigration. Not so much. According to a report from the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force in 2018, approximately 83% of the victims rescued in Orange County were, in fact, U.S. nationals.
Anyone can become a victim of human trafficking: the maid who cleans your room, or the busboy who cleans your table, or the child you see begging in the University Town Center, or the guy who fixes your car at the garage downtown. There is a real possibility that there could be someone you know who is a victim of human trafficking.
Signs of someone who may be a victim of human trafficking are: someone who is disconnected from family, friends, or religious communities; a child who has abruptly stopped going to school, or has disappeared altogether; any minor who is engaged in commercial sex acts; if a person appears disoriented, confused, malnourished, in need of medical care, or has bruises, they could possibly be a victim. If you see someone who is always accompanied by the same person or people, and may appear to be under their control, or someone who is confined to a specific house or location, they may also be a victim.
While some of us may be afraid or indifferent to confront such situations, we have a moral obligation to report human trafficking. Even if your suspicions turn out to be wrong, and I have been wrong a couple of times, you still have a responsibility to say something to someone. I have found that religious communities and the U.S. Armed Forces are far more willing to listen than are the police organizations I have encountered during my travels.
Human trafficking is not going away. It’s becoming worse. Thus, it’s up to us to do something about it.