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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Slavery is not ‘out there’

Anti-human trafficking organization turns 10

TOWNSHEND—Nearly 150 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, human trafficking is considered the second fastest growing criminal industry in the world.

People may have calculated their carbon footprint, but few think about the size of their slavery footprint, said Mei-Mei Ellerman, a scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center and a founding board member of the Polaris Project, from her family home in Townshend.

The breadth of a person’s slavery footprint depends on whether they buy Hershey’s chocolate or fair trade. Or if they purchase the Koch brothers’ Vanity Fair brand napkins or those from Trader Joe’s, said Ellerman.

She adds that anyone owning electronic devices, such as cell phones or laptops, have contributed to the slave industry. Traffickers often use forced labor to mine the minerals used in electronics, Ellerman said.

Ellerman’s son, Derek Ellerman, and his friend Katherine Chon, graduates of Brown University, founded the Polaris Project in 2002 while still in college. The organization is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

“My son was my mentor,” said Ellerman.

The people involved in Polaris “are fueled by love and the outrage at the true injustice that any single human being not be allowed to live in freedom,” said Ellerman.

The organization operates the only National Human Trafficking Hotline and Resource Center sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The center operates 24/7 and in 170 languages.

Polaris holds two goals, said Ellerman. The first, abolish slavery. The second is to provide communities with skills to engage in the eradication of human trafficking.

Ellerman said huge number of calls to Polaris’ hotline come from community members reporting “they saw something [that does] not look right.”

Polaris also provides training for law enforcement to assist its efforts to identify and rescue victims.

Force, fraud, and coercion — through violence or psychological abuse — are the three components that comprise human trafficking, said Ellerman. These differ from smuggling people across international boarders.

Under the heading of “human trafficking” falls a multitude of practices, most starting with the adjective “forced.”

Modern-day slavery includes forced prostitution; debt bondage, requiring people work to pay off a debt and often rigging the system so they can’t; forced labor; or domestic servitude, promising paid positions like nannies or hotel maids that turn into imprisonment and no wages.

Most of the people trafficked are women and children. Many come from poverty.

If a person can be trafficked, a trafficker will find a way. Examples of modern-day slavery industries include sex workers, magazine crews of children selling subscriptions, agricultural labor, people working construction, the garment sector, Chinese buffets, nail salons, hotel maids, and camp counselors.

“Every day, something new crops up,” said Ellerman.

Human trafficking is driven by profit, low risk, and demand, said Ellerman.

“It is the worst kind of consumerism,” she said.

Ellerman points to the pornography industry for examples.

The average 11-year-old boy has watched hard core porn on the Internet, she said. His attitude toward women and girls forms amidst violence, degradation, and unreasonable expectations. Eventually, regular consumers of porn want the real thing.

People don’t stop to think that an estimated 90 percent of porn “actors” are victims of human trafficking, she said.

“We are all accountable,” she said. “Our society needs to change the mindset of the male young boys so they really respect and consider as equals their young classmates,” said Ellerman.

At home

Among industrialized nations, the United States has the highest percentage of forced labor, said Ellerman.

According to a press release, since opening the hotline in 2007, Polaris has received almost 60,000 calls and connected more than 6,700 potential victims to services. Almost 2,700 victims have dialed the hotline on their own behalf. Incidences of sex and labor trafficking have been reported to the hotline in all 50 states and the District of Columbia in the last two years.

Vermont falls into all three categories of human trafficking networks. It is a transit state, because of its proximity to Canada; a source state, as Vermonters are picked up in cities like New York and forced into the sex industry; and it is also a destination state for networks operating through businesses such as massage parlors or nail salons, according to Polaris.

Ellerman said an estimated 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year. Domestically, about 100,000 to 300,000 youth are at high risk of getting trapped in forced prostitution, estimates based on the number of runaway children.

Most of the children that run away escape abusive homes, said Ellerman. Estimates say that a pimp will pick up one out of six runaway children within 48 hours.

The pimps court the kids, she said. They buy the children food, new clothes, tell them they are protected.

“Then the honeymoon is over and it’s payback time,” said Ellerman. “Hell begins.”

Most of the new victims are initiated through practices like gang rape, said Ellerman.

According to Ellerman, the average age of runaway children is 10.

According to Ellerman, Polaris has assisted in identifying and rescuing 7,000 victims, about 1,400 annually, since 2007. The U.S. Government rescues an average of 350 people a year.

Sometimes law enforcement has only a 10- to 15-minute window to free someone, said Ellerman. This is where good training and coordination play a role.

In one rescue case, said Ellerman, a woman held as a hotel maid called the hotline when the hotel owner forgot to lock a door.

Human trafficking represents a highly profitable and low risk business, said Ellerman.

Traffickers are hard to catch and hard to prosecute. They move their victims constantly, she said. Usually the people they’re holding are moved every few days, at night, in vehicles with no, or blacked-out, windows, said Ellerman.

Ellerman called the people helping the traffickers, like taxi or van drivers, “complicit enablers.”

By moving the victims, the traffickers prevent them building bonds with any community member like a sympathetic John.

Most trafficking networks operate on an international scale, said Ellerman. Their primary products include drugs, weapons, and people. Examples of networks are the Yakuza from Japan, the Triad from China, and almost any organization with “Mafia” in its name.

Polaris’ efforts to train law enforcement and prosecutors has led to more rescues and more successful court cases, said Ellerman.

Every year, the organization attempts to strengthen states’ legislation. Polaris hopes to impact all levels of the human trafficking pyramid from companies using forced labor, traffickers, and Johns.

Not looking away

Society’s response to human trafficking has changed, said Ellerman. Traditionally, people trapped in slavery, especially sex workers, were viewed as “throw aways” or “tainted goods.” Prostitutes were rounded up, slapped by the courts, and sent back to the pimps who are traffickers, said Ellerman.

According to Ellerman, when Polaris first started, law enforcement provided little support for victims of human trafficking. So Polaris staff went into brothels with hidden cameras.

She said Polaris has worked with victims who have been beaten, raped, locked in windowless rooms, lost teeth, and some who have attempted suicide.

According to Ellerman, before the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), enacted in 2000, foreign victims, often caught in the sex industry, were deported. The TVPA allowed foreign victims to receive services and apply for a three-year visa. Later the law was extended to protect domestic victims.

In addition to raising awareness and training law enforcement, Polaris has tried to build infrastructure, such as counseling and housing, to serve victims.

Ellerman said there is still “an obscene” lack of transitional housing for victims.

Survivors require unique support for their recovery, she said.

Early in Polaris’ founding, she said the organization would house female survivors in local shelters designed for victims of domestic violence, when Polaris’ own housing was full. Almost always, the women would return to Polaris because the domestic violence shelters couldn’t support them.

Slavery takes everything from its victims, Ellerman said. It takes a person’s sense of self, their ability to make choices, or define what they want. Even picking out food at the grocery store is impossible at first.

People are “reduced to an abused commodity until they are numb and powerless,” she said.

Survivors take time to recognize and connect with their own reflections in the bathroom mirror. They need to learn to feel again, said Ellerman, to smile, to laugh.

Beyond the abuse

Ellerman points to changes in society’s awareness and resulting legislation that gives her hope for a world without slavery.

Hilton Hotels has pledged to not accept clients with “dubious partners” as a way to combat sex tourism, said Ellerman. Air France flights show information videos warning people not to engage in sex tourism. The United States has enacted laws that have a reach long enough to charge citizens identified as participating in sex tourism and pedophilia overseas, said Ellerman.

Polaris has focused campaigns to persuade media outlets to cease running ads for massage parlors or escorts because they are likely to be human trafficking networks. According to Ellerman, Polaris was behind the website Craigslist removing its pornography section.

A decade ago only two states had anti-trafficking laws. Now 49 states have enacted some form of anti-human trafficking legislation, she said.

In 2010, Ellerman said, Vermont had pitiful anti-human trafficking legislation.

Ellerman said Polaris testified before the Legislature four times in favor of Act 55, An Act Relating to Human Trafficking. She credits the bill’s success to support from State Sen. Richard Sears and state Reps. Maxine Grad and Kesha Ram, and it was strongly supported by the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services, Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Spectrum Family Services, Coalition of Vermonters Against Slavery and Trafficking (COVAST), Give Way to Freedom, and the Vermont Coalition of Runaway and Homeless Youth Services.

Within nine months, Vermont had one of the strongest bills in the country. Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the bill in 2011. “Now there is a real [anti-trafficking] movement,” said Ellerman.

Enforcing the law is the next big step, she said.

According to Ellerman, the hotline has taken in 86 calls from Vermont since late 2007, 15 of which were crisis calls.

Polaris remains aware that it must stay “10 steps ahead” of the the traffickers, said Ellerman.

While the organization celebrates its 10th anniversary, it has also formed a global action list for 2020.

Polaris’ end goal, said Ellerman, is to work itself out of a job.

Ellerman said she feels privileged to meet with survivors. She has witnessed their resilience and their reconnecting with the human race despite horrific treatment at the hands of fellow humans.

“It gives you hope and it gives you faith of the survivors to bounce back” despite the scars, she said. “They can become amazing leaders.”

The Human Trafficking Hotline number is 1-888-3737-888. To learn more about Polaris Project, visit www.PolarisProject.org.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #172 (Wednesday, October 3, 2012).

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