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The scourge of human trafficking: It's not just other countries' problem

An expert who's fought to stop the sexual exploitation of children on what we -- and the travel industry -- can do


Daniela Petrova
January 17, 2016 7:00PM (UTC)

January has been designated Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month by presidential proclamation.

Millions of women, men and children around the world are subjected to forced labor, domestic servitude or the sex trade. What many don’t know is that this modern-day slavery happens right here in the United States.

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Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. It does not require that a victim be moved over state or international borders and should not be confused with smuggling. Smuggling is transportation; trafficking is exploitation. Being trafficked is not a choice a person makes.

Forty percent of human trafficking cases in the U.S. involve the sexual exploitation of a child according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Children as young as 12 years old are trafficked for sexual exploitation. In many states, these children can be arrested for prostitution, even though they are below the age of consent.

Carol Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT-USA, knows these grim statistics all too well. For 25 years, she has fought relentlessly to stop the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

At a coffee shop near the United Nations in New York, Smolenski talked to Salon about the persistent misconceptions surrounding human trafficking, the problem with charging exploited children with prostitution instead of treating them as victims, the role of the travel industry and the types of children who are most vulnerable to fall prey to traffickers. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Many people believe that human trafficking happens only overseas. Is that true?

The Trafficking of Victims Protection Law of 2000 defined trafficking for the first time. Before that there was no law in the U.S. about it.

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It also defined what a human trafficking victim is. If force, fraud or coercion is used to make you do something, you might be one. Also, anyone under 18 who is being “induced to perform” a commercial sex act is a victim of trafficking. You don’t even have to show force, fraud or coercion for a child to be identified as a sex trafficking victim.

When the law was passed, the belief was that it was needed to protect internationally trafficked people in the U.S. The rationale was—and I remember hearing this from legislators—that we didn’t have to write into the law any protections for American kids because, as Americans, they already had protection.

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A lot of people still see trafficking victims as poor unfortunate people from other countries. The biggest misconception about human trafficking is that only foreigners can be trafficked.

Are there other misconceptions?

The other big misconception is that when teens are involved—whether boys or girls—it is their choice. That they like it and like the money. It’s hard for people to overcome that belief.

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There is universal outrage when pre-pubescent kids are raped, depicted in pornography, or sold in any other way. But as soon as that child reaches the age of puberty—as soon as girls develop breasts and boys get facial hair—all bets are off. These children are now seen as complacent in their own abuse.

You mean that they are being treated as criminals not victims?

I was just reading an article, yesterday morning, from 2003 in the New York Times about a 12-year-old girl who was arrested for prostitution here in New York. She had a long history of physical and sexual abuse by her family, as well as abandonment. A pimp found her and gave her a new dress and a cellphone and told her: “You work for me now.” He told her that he loved her and would take care of her. This is a girl who had never had anyone tell her “I love you” or give her anything. So she did what she was told to do and an undercover cop solicited her and she was arrested.

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At ECPAT-USA, we have been fighting to see these kids as victims and treat them as victims, not as bad kids—both by the criminal justice system and Child Protective Services. And that’s the philosophy behind the Safe Harbor Laws – to require that those kids be given protection instead of being prosecuted.

Tell me more about the Safe Harbor Laws. How many states have them in place?

The first Safe Harbor Law was passed in New York in 2008. There are now 21 states and the District of Columbia with such laws, but they have a wide array of provisions. A very good law would make a child immune from prosecution for being sexually exploited. But most states don’t have that. Most still leave some room for prosecution of victims. Also, a good law would have a provision for services for these kids. You don’t want to simply put them back on the street. You want some way of helping and assisting them. You also want the laws to have provisions for training of law enforcement to see these children as victims not as criminals who should be locked up.

Who are the children most at risk for being trafficked?

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Abused kids are most vulnerable to falling victim to commercial sexual exploitation. It is so easy to recruit sexually abused children. Also, foster care kids who might have moved from family to family and don’t really have anyone to take care of them. Runaways and kids living on the street are also very easy to recruit.

These are the biggest categories but, really, any child who feels lonely and disconnected is vulnerable. A risk taker who might be mad with her parents that night can easily decide to get into a guy’s expensive car. And one of the things we’ve learned from so many survivors is that once you’re in, it is really hard to get out. Especially if you don’t have a family, if you don’t have a mom you can call. I have spoken to numerous survivors over the years and so many of them say, “Luckily, I could call my mom and get a bus ticket.” But what if you don’t have a mom to call?

And you wouldn’t call the cops if you were worried that you would be thrown in jail for prostitution. 

Well, of course, you’re certainly not going to go to the cops. Because they’re not going to look on you kindly if you’ve been prostituting and have a pimp.

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Do you work on these issues with the police?

Over the years, we have done a lot of law enforcement training. Actually, for three years we had a big anti-trafficking project in New York. We created the first trafficking task force in New York City, which included local and federal law enforcement, nonprofit organizations and service providers.

I’ll never forget the very first training we did with the Brooklyn DA’s office and NYPD. At the coffee break, a detective with the Special Victims Unit told me: “We did a wiretap on a brothel in Queens last year and now I realize those must have been trafficking victims.”

You also work with New York schools, right?

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We teach kids in high schools about their rights and about the issue of sex trafficking. The idea is to help them learn how to keep themselves safe and how to talk to their peers about it. We know from research that by the time kids are in high school and they feel they’re in a dangerous or tricky situation, they won’t go to their parents or teachers anymore but to their friends.

At a charity fair a couple of years ago, a woman who works for the federal government came up to me and told me that, when she was in middle school, she and her friends were waiting at the bus stop when a really expensive car pulled up with a guy and two girls in it. They asked them if they wanted to party and if they wanted to make some money. She said yes, but her friend, who was much more savvy than her, told them, “Go away. We don’t wanna be no hoes.”

And so, ECPAT’s tag line now is: Every kid needs to be savvy.

In New York—where former Subway spokesman Jared Fogle traveled to meet his victims—45 percent of commercial child sexual exploitation takes place in hotels. How can the travel industry help stem the problem?

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Early on, ECPAT identified that the travel industry was not responsible for the commercial sexual exploitation of children, but it was in a position to help mitigate it. In 1998, ECPAT-Sweden created the Code of Conduct. A lot of tour operators signed up for it. In 2004, we introduced it in North America.

What exactly is the Code of Conduct?

The Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct is a voluntary set of business principles that a travel company can take to ensure that its services are not being misused to exploit children. That means that they have a corporate policy about the sexual exploitation of children, provide training for staff to know what to look for, include a clause of zero tolerance in contracts with suppliers, provide information on children's rights to travelers and business partners, and, finally, report annually on their implementation of code-related activities.

It took a long time to get the industry interested and involved. We would hear stories from people at the ground level about somebody seeing something or feeling very uncomfortable that they saw something but they didn’t want to say anything for fear of getting in trouble with the boss. And so, the idea behind the code is to overcome that.

At the corporate headquarters level, we’ve had some resistance because of liability questions; but we have now gotten companies to understand that this is a good thing for them. We have a lot of momentum in getting travel companies to sign at the moment. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people in the travel industry are now equipped to see something and say something. To see something and know what to do.

Have you seen any changes since you started ECPAT-USA?

When I look at that 2003 article, I see how far we’ve come. There has been so much training and awareness in the criminal justice system, Child Protective Services, in the legislature and the public mind to better understand the issue. There is a lot of recognition today that sex trafficking and exploitation of children happens here in America. Kids are being identified as victims and there are services available for them in many places.

We don’t have a baseline number for how many kids were trafficked before and how many are trafficked now, but I know that there is a ton of awareness across the board in every sector.

What would you say are the challenges we still face today?

There is the broad swath of people who still don’t see post-pubescent kids as victims and are not sympathetic to their struggles.

Another huge challenge today is the online exploitation of children. And even though it hasn’t been on ECPAT-USA’s front burner, we’re going to move it there. Child pornography has exploded since the invention of the digital camera and the Internet. There are millions of images, of younger and younger kids, and the violence of the abuse that takes place in these pictures is unbelievable. It crosses over with child sex trafficking because these children are bought and sold to produce the images. Online exploitation and prostitution has moved to Backpage.com but because of our laws in the U.S., Backpage is not responsible for it. So, it’s a cat and mouse game. Also, it’s an international industry, so the server is in one country, the buyer is in another, and the kids are in a third country. Combating it requires a very coordinated law enforcement system and a lot of resources.

How can regular people help? What can we do?

We have a lot of information on our website about what you can do. There is a wide array of things, depending on the level of involvement you would like. Obviously, you can donate to ECPAT. You should know the signs of trafficking and if you work with youth, law enforcement, healthcare, education or social services, you should see about getting training for yourself and your staff so that you know the signs and what to do.

We ask people when they travel to use companies that have signed the Code of Conduct and if a company hasn’t signed, to ask them why not. Tell them that you prefer to use a company that has signed. We have information on our website that helps you make that case. If you work in the travel industry, encourage your company to sign. Get your business to use Code of Conduct companies for its travel. That has been enormously helpful in encouraging the travel industry to sign the code because there are a lot of big corporations whose travel managers have the code as one of the criteria they use in choosing companies they are going to contract with.

We have letters on our website that you can download and write to your legislator because there is a lot that needs to change in the legislature and policy environment to make sure kids are safe.

How about people who live in states that don’t have Safe Harbor Laws?

Request the report on our website to find out if your state has a Safe Harbor Law. Write to your state legislators and tell them you think they should pass one.

Get your church group or women’s group to start a campaign. We do that with some churches here in New York. They organize a letter-writing campaign for a specific piece of legislation.

So, yeah, get mad because it’s not right. You grow up in America and you’re told this is the best country in the world and so when it comes to human trafficking, everybody thinks it happens overseas. But it’s right here in the US. And how can that be? We’re a really rich country. How can it be that we allow our kids to be bought and sold for sex? Everybody should be outraged about this and join us in the movement.

What frustrates you the most about the situation?

The sense of complacency that I sometimes see—that there is nothing you can do about it. That’s very frustrating because there is a lot that can be done. And the other thing is, I still see people who say, “Oh, it’s such an ugly subject; I can’t possibly think about it.” That’s the worst.

What do you love most about your work?

I get paid to go to the office and be mad. And funnel it towards a productive activity. It’s nice to have a setting in which you see a wrong and then get to work to correct it. I get to do it every day.

People often ask me, “How can you do this job? It’s so depressing.” I tell them that I get paid to do good. It’s the best job in the world.

If there is only one thing readers take away from this Q&A, what would you like that to be?

I want people to know that we can stop the sex trafficking of children in the United States. We can do this. We’re doing it.


Daniela Petrova

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