Trapped in Plain Sight

Human Trafficking Occurs Closer to Home Than Many People Think

Prison-like living conditions. Menacing captors. Young women. Even younger children. Duped into lives of forced labor and bondage. This is the Hollywood version of human trafficking depicted in movies and sensational news reports. But like everything in Hollywood, real life can spin a much different story.

Human trafficking occurs in communities and businesses everyday in the United States.

Human trafficking occurs in communities and businesses everyday in the United States. Photo: Flashfilm/Getty

From restaurant kitchens and private homes to nail salons and agricultural fields, human trafficking occurs every day in communities across the United States. People of varying means, genders and ethnicities are tricked, coerced and threatened into forced labor and debt bondage.

“It’s a challenge to break the ‘Hollywood Russian mobster-pretty girls’ image and bring home the reality that traffickers look like everyone else, that it could easily be your next-door neighbor,” says Dana Vaughn-Mgunda, an anti-trafficking advocate who develops training seminars for law enforcement and social services personnel in North Carolina.

It might not be the first place that comes to mind in the global battle against human trafficking, but people in similar locations across the country are finding themselves face to face with the crisis. Vaughn-Mgunda and her colleagues are arming frontline responders for a battle they may be fighting every day—without even realizing it.

Delivering the message, however, is no simple matter. The United States recognizes any person tricked, coerced or in any way forced into a living and/or working situation not of their choice as a victim of trafficking. But there’s more to the realities of trafficking than this simple definition.

Trafficking is a circle of bribery, intimidation, exploitation and greed. It is shut off from public service providers by fear, dependency, linguistic barriers and ignorance. In fact, though numbers of victims are disputed, there is nearly universal agreement that human trafficking is the world’s third most profitable criminal business, earning perpetrators more than $30 billion a year.

Federal and state lawmakers have taken action on the issue, but the truth, says Vaughn-Mgunda, is that “police officers and social workers at the street level where these crimes occur largely have no real knowledge of the problem.”

It’s a lament echoed by anti-trafficking advocates throughout the United States. “We need massive, massive, public awareness campaigns in every state,” says Leslie Wolfe, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Women Policy Studies. “People need to realize it can, and does, happen anytime, anywhere, in many different forms.”

Painful Stories Inspire Advocacy

Many anti-trafficking advocates did not set out to tackle this cause but became involved either because they were victims themselves or because they came into contact with the enslaved. Vaughn-Mgunda is no exception.

Working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Malawi from 2004 through 2006 after four years with the Peace Corps, Vaughn-Mgunda, a graduate of Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, was tasked with coordinating education programs at the Dzaleka
Refugee Camp. At the camp, which houses displaced people from countries including Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, she and her colleagues began to examine unaccompanied children’s efforts to survive in the camp, looking at how and whether their needs were being met.

Their investigations brought them into contact with a teenage girl who had taken shelter with adults in the camp. The adults had promised her some semblance of home and family. Shortly thereafter, the girl was sold to a Zambian trafficker for $250.

The foster family was told the girl was being bought as a wife, but in reality, she was being forced to work in a brothel until she became pregnant. She was then sent back to Dzaleka.

“We started asking questions, and another, then another, and another story of young girls experiencing this came out, and I realized what we were dealing with was trafficking,” recalls Vaughn-Mgunda, who now keeps photos of the young people at the camp so that their experiences stay fresh in her mind. “The girls were vulnerable, the ‘foster families’ were vulnerable. Everyone knew what was happening, and yet no one made the obvious connection.”

Firm figures on people enslaved by human trafficking recruiters are extremely hard to come by. Estimates for people trafficked into the United States every year range from 15,000 to 50,000, while as many as 300,000 American children are believed to be vulnerable to trafficking at any given time.

Around the world, the best estimates indicate that between 700,000 and 800,000 people every year fall victim to trafficking schemes and that, at any given time, about 27 million people are enslaved.

“Don’t believe any of the numbers,” cautions Wolfe, of the Center for Women Policy Studies. “The cases brought to light are just a small fraction of a vast underground of the big criminal conspiracies and a lot of small operations in restaurant kitchens, sweatshops and agricultural fields around the country and around the world.”

Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa are routinely identified as the top source, transit and destination regions for trafficking, while tens of thousands of people fall victim to trafficking in the United States every year. Some are trafficked in from other countries, but many are trafficked domestically.

It’s a reality 21-year-old Given Kachepa from Zambia knows only too well. Kachepa was brought into the United States 10 years ago by a couple working with the now-defunct faith-based organization Teaching Teachers to Teach as a member of the Zambian Acapella Boys’ Choir.

The boys left their homes when they were promised educational opportunities, as well as earnings they could send to their families. Instead, Kachepa and 66 other boys found themselves singing multiple concerts a day with no pay, living in a trailer near Dallas with inadequate food and no available medical care.

The scheme unraveled when some of the boys fell ill and others began challenging the traffickers’ authority. Their handlers decided to deport three of the boys, but they were unprepared for the questioning of curious immigration officials.

Kachepa, now a graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University, was adopted by a Texas family after his rescue and has turned his experience into a trafficking awareness campaign. He is engaging lawmakers, rights groups and the media, and helped write a book about his ordeal.

“Telling people about trafficking is a way to save lives,” Kachepa says. “If people know what is happening, then maybe others will not have to go through what I experienced.”

Efforts Target Unlikely Group

Raising awareness in the United States, advocates agree, is priority No. 1. Surprisingly, they say that public service providers also are in need of information.

“Social workers have an important role in identifying and providing aftercare to trafficking victims,” says M.C. “Terry” Hokenstad, Ph.D., of Case Western Reserve’s Mandel School. “However, they need to better understand the international dimension of the problem, including its magnitude and the network of international agencies addressing it as a major human rights problem.”

Part of Vaughn-Mgunda’s work with the North Carolina Ripple Coalition has been to create an education template on human trafficking that offers a basic snapshot of a very large problem. She targets police departments, social services, domestic violence shelters, county health facilities and homeless shelters.

“I’m starting from the basics—explaining that there is a fundamental difference between smuggling and trafficking, a difference between choice and coercion,” she says. “And I’m trying to emphasize that trafficking can be occurring in the café down the street.”

Traffickers, Vaughn-Mgunda says, prey upon vulnerable groups: the poor and the disenfranchised, as well as women and children.

Often, victims are promised jobs, money to provide for family members back home, or even loving personal relationships. Young victims, particularly females, may cope by developing “loving” feelings for their abusers, which can complicate efforts to identify trafficking victims and prosecute offenders.

And while it may seem that the impoverished groups targeted by traffickers are found solely in developing or Third World countries, one out of every five children in the United States is living in poverty. What is most worrisome, says Claudia Coulton, co-director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Social Change at Case Western Reserve, is how quickly poverty can affect young lives.

“It affects child development from birth,” she says. “By the time they reach school, poor children are behind, and as they grow they only fall even farther behind.”

In many poorer families, parents have limited education. They often work multiple jobs and are unable to access the outreach services available to them. And while poverty itself doesn’t cause abuse, studies have found that children in poverty are more likely to be abused than their more affluent peers.

“It is those girls who don’t see a positive future at a time in their lives when they’re trying to create an identity for themselves, who see no clear path to self-sufficiency and/or becoming part of a couple with earning power, that are most at risk,” Coulton says.

Problems Persist Despite Laws

In 2000, the United States enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which officially acknowledged trafficking as a crime and established harsh penalties. Under the act, debt bondage, forced labor and involuntary servitude qualify as federal criminal offenses. By the end of 2007, 33 states had passed legislation defining and criminalizing trafficking offenses.

But states are limited in the kind of protection and aid they can offer victims, especially those brought into the country illegally.

“It’s a terrible dilemma for states and service providers,” says Wolfe. “By providing services to illegal victims, a provider can be considered guilty of ‘harboring an alien’ under federal law.”

Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, some foreign victims can qualify for special visa considerations if they can demonstrate victimhood and express a willingness to assist law enforcement in prosecution efforts. These provisions can be problematic for trafficking victims who don’t speak English, who are scared of authorities, and who may be traumatized mentally and physically by their experience.

“Trafficking is about violence, poverty, abuse of rights and a lack of recourse,” says Wolfe. “Real help for victims needs to address those aspects or we risk further victimization.”

The educational efforts of Vaughn-Mgunda and those like her are intended as a starting point in the fight against human trafficking. While awareness among policymakers and service providers at the local, state and federal levels is on the rise, it is not as high as advocates would like it to be.

Efforts to address underlying causes of trafficking, such as poverty and insufficient education, are ongoing, but these are problems with deep roots and no easy solutions. As a result, with every day that passes, more and more people are left vulnerable. For advocates like Vaughn-Mgunda, it’s the personal memories of the victims themselves that keep them motivated and focused on awareness.

“There is a frustration there, so many people are so vulnerable,” she says. “But, at the same time, the information needs to get out there, and there are so few people doing it. I think of those girls in Malawi and know the work must be done for children like them.”