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Listening to the Survivors of Human Trafficking

March 31, 2019
Natasha Schmidt
7 min read
In the US, many of the human trafficking cases involve labor trafficking
In the US, many of the human trafficking cases involve labor trafficking
This graph displays the origin countries of many of the people who experience labor trafficking
This graph displays the origin countries of many of the people who experience labor trafficking
President Trump's Remain in Mexico policy means many asylum seekers are stranded at the US-Mexico border
President Trump's Remain in Mexico policy means many asylum seekers are stranded at the US-Mexico border
The stories children tell about their experiences of trafficking are shocking and distressing
The stories children tell about their experiences of trafficking are shocking and distressing

In the mid-1990s, a law student worked on the case of Fauziya Kassindja, a young woman fleeing her home country of Togo to escape a forced marriage and genital mutilation. Kassindja traveled through Ghana and Germany before arriving in the United States and, after a period of detention and a complex legal case, was eventually granted asylum.

Kassindja’s case was groundbreaking. It led to the US defining genital mutilation as a crime in 1997, and to gender being considered as grounds for claiming asylum. The same year, Layli Miller-Muro, the young student who had worked on the case, set up the Tahirih Justice Center. More than 20 years on, it continues its work with survivors of gender-based violence in the United States, protecting them through the courts, via advocacy, and through providing a range of services, including education and legal advice. Today it has offices in San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston, Atlanta and Washington, DC. Key to its work is the amplification of the voices of those affected by violence, and ensuring their stories inform laws, policies and social attitudes that affect women’s and girls’ lives.

As the Tahirih Justice Center’s executive director for the San Francisco area Morgan Weibel told IranWire, they deal with situations where power and control have been exploited, allowing “someone to maintain control or coercion over another person.” Among other crimes, the center deals with human trafficking, and with women, girls and transgender people who have experienced violence as a result of it, or as part of their experience of entering the US as an immigrant, refugee or asylum seeker.

A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime states that "human trafficking has taken on horrific dimensions,” and there has been a global trend for a steady increase since 2010. As the number of people trying to flee their countries and seek refuge elsewhere continues to rise — due to human rights violations, political pressures, economic crisis, religious or ethnic discrimination, or trying to escape from war or conflict — the risk of individuals being subjected to trafficking rises, a situation many Iranians will know well. Currently in the US, trafficking crimes are most rife on the border with Mexico, where a combination of large numbers of refugees hoping to get into the country and President Trump’s anti-immigration policy has created an environment where trafficking can potentially thrive.

“What we have right now is kind of a ticking time bomb,” says Weibel. “There are so many individuals that are waiting in Tijuana under this ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, or who have not been able to access the US, like they should be able to under international law, and apply for asylum. They’re stuck in Tijuana through the metering policies that the US government has put in place, and that creates a very vulnerable population of people waiting.”


Isolation and Vulnerability

The majority of the trafficking cases the Tahirih Justice Center works on involve labor trafficking. Often an individual or a family will employ someone to help them enter the US — a smuggler — and then, because that person is vulnerable, a more toxic situation can develop, resulting in human trafficking.  

Weibel says trafficking often arises when parents are trying to make a better life for their children — they want them to have education, opportunities, options. “There's an offer of a great job, being a nanny or being a housekeeper in this other location,” she says. “The person signs up under the assumption that it's a real and above-board job. And then there's a big switch or a situation that is not what is was advertised to be. And then it becomes very difficult to extricate yourself from a situation like that. Because there can be threats about harming other family members back in the home country ... there could be threats of deportation here in the US. I have seen over the years all sorts of threats related to just cultural norms and practices. Like: ‘you'll bring dishonor and shame upon your family if you give up this job or this position.” These threats can be even more devastating if sex trafficking has occurred. "It can be a cultural shaming or embarrassing experience,” Weibel explains. “So that's another way that things are kept quiet or under wraps and people are stuck.” One form of abuse can easily lead to another, “because at the base of it is this belief by the perpetrator that this person is either less than human” or that they can be owned or controlled. “Once you've got to that place intellectually and mentally and you believe that, then where's the limit, where's the line?”

An isolated person is a vulnerable person, and children are particularly at risk, cut off from networks, and from avenues of support, including from people who have experienced similar situations. “When [traffickers] are able to remove victims from normal support networks and isolate them or keep them in spaces where they don't have access to family or friends or other types of support, like a religious network, it makes it much easier to keep individuals in involuntary situations and scenarios,” Weibel says. She has also come across cases where parents have tried to ensure their children made it into the US and mistakenly assumed a smuggling situation was safe and it wasn’t.

IranWire’s series on refugees and asylum seekers — including Iranians exposed to the world of human trafficking — also highlights the extreme isolation and hardship endured by people trying to escape persecution and discrimination. Long journeys across mountain passes through Iran and Turkey, the terrible conditions in Greek and French refugee camps, the long waiting times for the UN to process cases, the intimidation tactics of the Revolutionary Guards, and the precarious relationships between traffickers and asylum seekers are all documented in the series. “When you hire a human trafficker, you have no control over your life — he has,” one migrant told IranWire's Aida Ghajar. And the children caught up in these situations also have harrowing stories to tell. “In Turkey, my shoe fell off and the trafficker did not even let me put it back on,” one young boy told IranWire. “He was hitting us and saying :’Go, go, go.’ I had to carry my shoe while walking on ice with only a sock on. My hands were frozen. My sister was so cold she told my mom her heart was frozen.”

The Slippery Slope from Smuggling to Trafficking

The UN defines human trafficking as "the recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation.” The UN protocol concerning the issue states that trafficking is always about exploitation. And Weibert points out that it can be a “slippery slope” from smuggling to trafficking, though it is important to make a clear distinction between the two. The key difference is consent. Trafficking is never consensual, whereas even though the conditions in which smuggling takes place are often dangerous and illegal, smuggling is predicated on a mutual understanding between the smuggler and the person hiring them. Profits are derived from the transportation of a person to a particular destination, whereas in cases of trafficking, money is made from exploitation.

Once a person has been helped out of a trafficking situation and has access to legal services, education for their children, and work, there’s still a lot more to do. “There are all sorts of things survivors are processing. There may be survivor guilt from being able to escape a trafficking scenario. There may be just re-assessing the dynamics of either a domestic violence situation or a human trafficking situation, looking at the power and control that has occurred,” says Weibel.

The Tahirih Justice Center engages the business community to support these vulnerable people and to help build an environment where people feel safe and are supported legally. Both local businesses and big companies provide support, from pro bono co-counsel legal work to providing spaces where the center’s staff can meet their clients and discuss their cases with them.

But at the heart of this work is making sure these survivors’ stories are heard. Testimony and championing the voices of those who have been directly affected is crucial to combating human trafficking. “They can really give that first person survivor perspective —‘this is what I've experienced, this is what it's like, and this is what you should be thinking about,’” says Weibel. “It is our job to elevate our clients' voices and then get out of the way — and make sure that they're able to talk more directly. Because who better to help lead and envision the future of our organization then the clients who have gone through the process?"


Read Aida Ghajar's series on human trafficking, refugees and asylum seekers

Find out more about the Tahirih Justice Center



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