Flash mob shines light on human trafficking

Lurid crimson lights illuminate six women dancing in the windows of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Scantily clad bodies pulse to high-volume dubstep as a crowd begins to gather. The women tear through the air, writhe in unison and whip long tresses. Men of all ages gape and point, grinning as they mimic the women’s choreographed stride.

Suddenly, the music stops, and, as the men whistle and clap, a massive sign becomes illuminated above. “Every year, thousands of women are promised a dance career in Western Europe.” The cheering stops, replaced by blank stares. Another message appears: “Sadly, they end up here. Stop the traffik. People shouldn’t be bought and sold.”

This action was organized in April by Stop The Traffik, a global movement committed to putting an end to human trafficking. A video of the dance went viral on YouTube. It was a much-needed reminder of a problem that is far too little known about and that calls for far more grassroots resistance.

According to the U.N.’s conservative estimates, 2.5 million people worldwide are currently victims of human trafficking, which is exceeded only by arms and drug trafficking in terms of profits reaped, and is likely the fastest-growing form of international crime. While men and children are not immune, women compose an estimated two-thirds of all trafficked persons.

No region in the world is exempt, and it is estimated that tens of thousands of trafficked persons are currently living in the U.S alone. Moreover, according to the Department of Justice, an additional 14,500-17,500 victims are trafficked into the country each year. Increased awareness is the first step towards halting these numbers.

First, people need to realize that not all sex workers are trafficking victims and that the crime surpasses the sex industry. This will help foster greater scrutiny on employers (and consumers) in all sectors, from agriculture and factory labor to domestic service. In addition to recognizing signs of this crime, awareness also means being informed about the diverse tactics used to coerce and traffic women, understanding what individuals can do to protect themselves, and knowing where victims may seek help.

Finally, as trafficking becomes increasingly present on people’s minds, demands for more direct action on the part of the government must follow. In 2010, U.S. federal law enforcement only charged 181 individuals with trafficking-related crimes, and protected merely 633 survivors by issuing them residence permission. Thus, calls for heightened prevention of the crime must be coupled with increased protection and greater rights for victims and their families.

One survivor’s story

Janete, a woman now in her early 20s, was lured from her native Nigeria for the purpose of sexual exploitation in Spain. (Her name has been changed for her protection.) After gathering the courage to escape from her traffickers more than three years ago, she still lives in daily fear that they will find her.

Janete attests that when the poor in Africa are offered an opportunity to go abroad, they may be willing to take great risks because of the desperate situations they face. Poverty, gender discrimination and violence contribute to young women’s willingness to travel to Europe, North America and other destination countries. In some cases, family members even sell their sisters and daughters. In Janete’s case, she left Nigeria because her family had become increasingly dependent on her to support them, and, as a young mother, she had few financial options.

Now a woman of petite stature with wide eyes and a mane of dark hair, Janete was born the eldest of two sisters to a poor mother in Benin City, Nigeria. When she was a teenager, Janete’s mother could no longer afford to send her to school, so she dropped out and began working to earn money for her family.

When a neighbor offered her the opportunity to seek work and schooling in Spain, Janete accepted and left her baby son in the care of relatives. With firmness in her voice, she recalls her departure:

I journeyed all the way from Nigeria to Spain … I walked by foot; I walked in the forest without shoes. I spent three days in the desert without food or water. I traveled for two months …We were a lot. A lot died. I was among the living.

On her journey from Nigeria to Northern Africa, Janete ventured for two months through Niger, Algeria and Morocco by foot, motorcycle, car and bus, facing both sexual and emotional abuse along the way. She recalls how it felt to be smuggled in the hidden compartment of a vehicle to cross the border into the Spanish territory of Ceuta in Northern Africa. She was barely 20 years old at the time.

Janete will never forget the day when, upon arriving to Ceuta, her traffickers caustically informed her that she would have to pay off a debt of €40,000 (about $51,000) through sex work in order to cover the expense of her travel, an arrangement that was never previously discussed with her.

For over seven months, Janete suffered sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse. She worked alongside girls younger than her — teenagers who became women at the hands of their traffickers. The abomination of near-daily rape became woven into the tapestry of their enslavement. Women trafficked for sexual exploitation are commonly made to prostitute themselves without protection, and forced abortions are frequent. Most have no control over the number of “clients” they service daily. One can’t help but wonder if the men who paid for her company ever paused to consider that their money fuels a slave trade.

One may also wonder why any woman forced to work against her will in a red-light district, brothel or truck stop does not escape. Often, traffickers’ threats on these women’s families back home may dissuade them from fleeing. Some come from countries with law enforcement so corrupt they do not equate the police in their new countries with protection. Others may not even be aware that what they are being forced to do is a crime.

Moreover, while some trafficked persons are literally confined under lock and key, Nigerians are frequently made to undergo voodoo ceremonies. These vows effectively serve to deter their escape, as the consequences of breaking a voodoo vow range from going mad to infertility and even death.

During Janete’s enslavement, no passersby, neighbors, “clients” or police officers stopped to question or report the situation. Moved by witnessing other women in similar circumstances who had been forced to work as prostitutes for years without pay, Janete eventually took the risk she understood could cost her life: She filed a report against her traffickers.

The following day, her story was published on the front page of a local newspaper, immediately compromising her anonymity. Lack of awareness on the part of the media ultimately put both Janete and her family in imminent danger. Back in Nigeria, family members began receiving death threats, and shortly afterwards their house was burned down. Janete was later attacked by one of her traffickers as retribution for turning him in.

After pressing charges, Janete provided evidence to Spanish law enforcement officials and offered her continued cooperation in the criminal case against her traffickers. However, shortly after, the authorities closed the investigation and thus had no further use for her cooperation. They subsequently refused her the residence permission designated for trafficking survivors who cooperate with the authorities. Her case underscores the obstacles survivors worldwide face in claiming the rights theoretically guaranteed to them by nationally and internationally recognized legal instruments, irrespective of their capacity to assist law enforcement authorities. Moreover, Janete’s circumstances demonstrate how greater awareness — for example, implemented through comprehensive training for law enforcement — could have resulted in better protection.

Janete remains in Spain, but because of her undocumented status, she fears any contact with police. Moreover, the government has failed to keep her safe from her traffickers, who continue to threaten her and her family. Janete looks up and narrows her gaze as she speaks of her young son still in Nigeria. He recently turned six, but Janete could not see him on his birthday. If she were to return home, she fears that she could be found by her traffickers and killed.

Raising awareness

As trafficking gains greater attention in the media, grassroots campaigns are critical to raising awareness and stopping this injustice. One current (albeit controversial) initiative calls on Village Voice Media to restrict backpage.com in an effort to combat child sex trafficking.

S.O.A.P., an outreach initiative created by Theresa Flores, a trafficking survivor herself, distributes thousands of free bars of soap with the phone number of the National Human Trafficking Hotline on them to motels. S.O.A.P. also educates motel staff about how to recognize signs of trafficking.

Another initiative is Truckers Against Trafficking, which seeks to mobilize and inform members of the trucking and travel plaza industry about domestic sex trafficking. The organization distributes materials at truck stops, offers awareness training DVDs for professionals and students in the sector, and partners with law enforcement to facilitate the investigation of trafficking cases.

Janete received assistance from the Spanish anti-trafficking organization Proyecto ESPERANZA, or Project HOPE, located in Madrid. Since 1999, Project HOPE has grown from a small group of volunteers to a multidisciplinary team of lawyers, educators, social workers and psychologists. The organization provides direct assistance to female survivors trafficked for all purposes of exploitation, offering safe accommodation as well as medical, psychological, legal and occupational support. Project HOPE also works to inform citizens and the authorities by speaking out against this form of present day slavery. Currently, the project is engaged in educating law enforcement to better detect cases of trafficking, as well as how to most effectively intervene in such cases.

Like the women who danced for Stop The Traffik’s flash mob campaign, Janete is now working to help bring the implications of trafficking to the attention of civil society. She is proud to call herself a survivor. Across the world, there are some 2.5 million individuals who are still fighting to reach this step.

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