Individuals can take heroic steps to stop human trafficking, like the cab driver in Saigon who rescued 11- and 12-year-olds enslaved in garment factories.
“These children should not be working like this,” the cab driver said. “They should be at home with their families and in school.”
Another way to chip away at human trafficking begins with a tip to police, and ends with a raid of a spa in Wellesley, Mass. and an indictment against its owners.
“[The owner] did tell law enforcement that she knew that what are known as ‘happy endings’ were taking place at that location,” a prosecutor said.
Or you organize against organized crime, as activist Ben Savasti did in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
“For instance, right down there is where young girls are forced to receive multiple customers every night, and if they refuse to, they are punished, beaten, burned with cigarettes,” Savasti said.
Savasti and his organization, TRAFCORD, succeeded in shutting down that notorious brothel.
But for every success story, the underground trade finds new ways to exploit women, men and children, many of whom are immigrants. Arlen Vanderbilt, a San Francisco vice detective, said the bar for proving human trafficking is set high.
“Felony charges for pimping and pandering, or human trafficking, require that we demonstrate that the trafficker, or the pimp, is benefiting financially from those transactions, and knowingly,” Vanderbilt said.
And so traffickers hide behind seemingly legitimate businesses like nail salons and massage parlors, he explained.
“So, in terms of bringing a case to a court of law, if we arrest a proprietor for pimping — of course it wouldn’t even get past the D.A. — but let’s say we tried to bring it to trial, the defense would be, ‘We have this woman here to give massages,’” Vanderbilt said.
So how do you make a lasting impact against well funded, well trained and dangerous criminals? Here are some ways to derail the underground trade.
First: Pass stronger state and federal laws. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) is urging passage of legislation that would require annual reports assessing how each state is doing in the fight against human trafficking. The State Department already requires these reports on a global level.
“I know in the Civil Rights Movement, we boycotted states that weren’t moving in the right direction and respecting human dignity,” Maloney said. “We can do the same thing with states that are not responding to the need to crack down on what we call the 21st century form of slavery.”
Maloney’s bill, however, is bogged down in gridlock.
Second: Reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which was first passed in 2000 and has been reauthorized three times. Now, it’s stalled.
Third: Make it more difficult for Americans to go overseas and solicit prostitutes. Ken Franzblau of Equality Now said sex tourism fuels demand for prostitution — and demand fuels human trafficking.
“When we would talk to non-governmental organizations in sex tourism destination countries, when we asked them, ‘What can we do to help,’ the response would often be, ‘Stop sending your sex tourists,’” Franzblau said.
But right now there’s little that can be done on the state level — at least in Massachusetts. The new anti-trafficking law doesn’t cover sex tourism.
“We can't control any activity of people outside of Massachusetts,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley. “So buying sex would be dictated by the location in which that happens. But that's where our federal partners come in.”
Fourth: Pass comprehensive immigration reform.
“Here in the United States, as part of the president’s proposal on comprehensive immigration reform, it’s the notion of reforming the guest worker program so they’re not only protected and there’s more labor inspection and other types of protection like that but also so that they are more able to fit the employers,” said Luis CdeBaca is U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking. “As long as we don’t have that, we’re going to have human traffickers who are exploiting the cracks in the system.”
Fifth: Urge businesses to take a zero-tolerance approach to slavery in their supply chains, as Virgin Airlines executive Richard Branson has sworn to do.
“Today, I’m delighted to sign this pledge and urge other businesses to do the same,” Branson said last year.
Sixth: Connect the dots of the underground trade between New York and other cities, including Providence and Boston. Jimmy Lee, of the New York-based group Restore, says law enforcement should concentrate on the alleged links between organized traffickers who transport women to New England but who start off in New York.
“They have networks throughout the east coast along the 95 corridor that bring them to other cities, but it is the natural starting point,” Lee said.
Seventh: Activists argue that individual states, including Massachusetts and New York, should make it more difficult to license and operate massage parlors.
“These businesses are filled with Asian women who don’t have the language skills and who, when they come [here], they were put in these work places,” said Fran Gau, of the New York Asian Women’s Center.
A lot of victims of sex trafficking are in fact Asian. But Providence police detective Mike Correia says traffickers know how to get around licensing provisions.
“They skirt the need for actual licenses to give massages,” Correia said. “They skirt it by careful advertising. They don’t say that they’re giving licensed massages. It’s more ‘body works’ or ‘back rubs.’ It’s a careful use of advertising words, I suppose.”
And eighth: Increase funding for fighting human trafficking. Though Massachusetts in 2011 passed a comprehensive anti-human trafficking law, police still lack the necessary resources.
“These are expansive, in depth investigations, and we really are short on resources you know,” said Kelly Nee, Boston Police Deputy Superintendent and a member of the Anti-Trafficking Task Force. “They’re time intensive and they are multijurisdictional, and even though the focus might be a human trafficking case, there’s a myriad of other crimes that often intersect with it -- organized crime, guns, trafficking, weapons, all of that. You need not only multidimensional investigators, but you need more investigators that can help do the bigger picture cases, and I think I can speak for the Boston police as well as myself, you know, we are inundated with cases.”
And even as I conclude this series, another Boston cop, Sgt. Donna Gavin, is investigating massage parlors in the area for prostitution, trying to see where the dots connect between here, New York and overseas.
“A lot of women from Southeast Asia that we’ve noticed,” Gavin said.
And as I wrap up this series, a former Brandeis University student from Vietnam named Van Ta is racing through China with two Vietnamese girls he’s just rescued from a brothel. He’s bringing them home.
A month after I interviewed him, a limo driver in New York is rethinking his view of the consequences of sex tourism.
“I didn’t realize it going into it,” he said. “All you see is the pretty lights, the beautiful women, and you don’t realize what’s behind it.”
And, at the conclusion of this report, a former victim in Boston and a survivor of sex trafficking in Vietnam are both getting on with their lives.
“I was 14 when I started,” said the woman in Boston. “And just the guy who I thought was my boyfriend at the time forced me into it. Now, I’ve come to terms with it, and now I’m working with a great organization, My Life My Choice.”
Both women are working for the very organizations that helped them, by helping others to escape the underground trade.