Human Trafficking of Vietnamese – Conference Held in California
by Jackie Bong-Wright
Despite Efforts, Trafficking Increases
In October 2006, the Associated Press reported that Donald Rene Ramirez, 50, a police officer from San Francisco, was charged in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for sexually abusing a 14-year-old Vietnamese girl in Cambodia. The girl’s mother provided her to Ramirez. A week earlier, 46-year-old Myron Maboris, also from the U.S., was charged with debauchery for having sex with a minor, punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison.
A month later, police in Vernon, Connecticut, raided the New Seoul Spa on Talcottville Road and arrested two Korean women for providing sex in exchange with money. Investigators alleged they were part of a human trafficking ring from New York.
Smuggling, prostitution, and sexual trafficking – what’s the difference? At the end of August, grassroots organizations including the Vietnam Human Rights Network and VietACT partnered with the Vietnamese-American Voters Association (VAVA) to organize a conference at Chapman University in Orange, California, to understand that difference. The meeting was entitled the Second Annual Conference on Combating Human Trafficking in Vietnam.
Robert Moosy, Director of the Human Trafficking Unit at the U.S. Department of Justice, defined human trafficking as the obtaining and maintaining of another person in a condition of compelled labor or service, which is different from smuggling. He told 150 participants at the Conference that there are two types of trafficking – sex trafficking and labor trafficking.
Victims are defrauded, coerced, and exploited. Those who engage in human trafficking can be pimps, diplomatic staff and foreign executives who arrive with “servants,” mom-and-pop family operations, independent businesses, or international organized criminal syndicates, often connected with drug and gun smuggling. Moosy mentioned the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 – it criminalizes these activities and allows perpetrators to be prosecuted. It also provides for restitution to victims through benefits such as shelter, care and legal status, the latter so that victims who are in the country with no documentation can remain. Other federal and state laws also provide resources to fight this modern-day slavery.
The TVPA came into play in the case of 300 Vietnamese hired by a Korean firm to work in a factory on American Samoa in 2005. Traffickers confiscated their documents. They were kept isolated and locked indoors, tricked into prostitution, forced to work overtime without pay, and beaten. They owed a crushing debt back home to their traffickers, and feared falling into the hands of the police. Fortunately, the criminals were brought to trial (US v. Wang and Kuo) and the victims’ human dignity was restored.
Some victims were not so lucky. Last April, the Deputy Director of the National Immigration Agency (NIA) in Taiwan, Steven Wu, placed victims in detention centers instead. “This was to protect them from criminals.” Father Peter O’Neill retorted that the government should send victims to shelters run by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as his, citing the U.N. protocol on the subject. In China, police paraded 100 prostitutes through the streets of Beijing, further victimizing these exploited women.
Mark Taylor, Senior Coordinator for the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, delivered the keynote speech at the California Conference. He said the UN Palermo Protocol and, later, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2003, added a new requirement that the State Department collect data from foreign governments on trafficking investigations, prosecutions, convictions and sentences. He noted that such law enforcement data, collected over three years to 2006, actually showed a slowing of progress – from 7,992 prosecutions in 2003 down to 5,808 in 2006.
Taylor remarked that victims’ protection was the greatest challenge, and reminded Conference attendees of the need for governments to provide efficient access to justice for the victims and to reintegrate them back into the community. This victim-centered approach strikes a balance between the security needs of the state and society’s need for the restoration of human rights to the victim.
Taylor showed staggering statistics. The International Labor Organzation (ILO) estimated the number of persons forced into labor from 1995 to 2004 at 12.3 MILLION people, 9,500,000 of whom came from Asia and the Pacific. In other words, 77% of the world’s forced labor is in Asia. U.S. GOVERNMENT-SPONSORED RESEARCH COMPLETED IN 2006 SHOWED THAT 800,000 PEOPLE ARE TRAFFICKED ACROSS NATIONAL BORDERS annually AND MILLIONS more TRAFFICKED WITHIN THEIR OWN COUNTRIES. About 80 PERCENT OF TRANSNATIONAL VICTIMS ARE WOMEN AND GIRLS, AND UP TO 50 PERCENT ARE MINORS.
Taylor reported that the worst exploitation sites, especially for Vietnamese laborers, have been in East Asia (Cambodia, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore) and the Persian Gulf, and also in Europe and North America. Particularly vulnerable were women recruited as brides and domestic servants.
The numbers of victims have been increasing steadily each year while the international community’s’ efforts to eliminate trafficking are slowing down. One reason is an increase in the selling of people’s labor and bodies via legal contracts between governments or implicit agreements involving operators using highly sophisticated methods to move their victims.
Another speaker at the Conference was Professor Marisa Cianciarulo of Chapman University, who stressed that law enforcement agents in the U.S. and elsewhere should exert more understanding in protecting victims and should refrain from deporting them back to their country of origin.
My-Nga Le of the Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Brides Office (VMWBO) couldn’t agree more. She has worked tirelessly to empower Vietnamese victims in Taiwan, seeking to have the local government implement legislation, which already exists, requiring employment agencies to improve services to victims. Domestic helpers, she said, should not be regarded as slaves or servants, and brides should be considered as human beings. Factory workers should be compensated fairly for their overtime work and should not be subject to deportation at the mercy of employers who have confiscated their passports. “They shouldn’t be subject to beatings and rape,” My-Nga asserted.
XUYEN-DONG MATSUDA, MASTER OF CLINICAL SOCIAL WORK AND A PSYCHOTHERAPIST, EMPHASIZED THAT MENTAL HEALTH COUNSELING IS A MUST FOR THE VICTIMS. THE TIP REPORT MENTIONED THAT VICTIMS SUFFER DISSOCIATIVE AND PERSONALITY DISORDERS, ANXIETY, POST-TRAUMATIC DISORDER DUE TO PHYSICAL ASSAULTS AND BEATINGS, AND DEPRESSION THAT ELEVATES THE RISK OF SUICIDE.
Doan Thanh Liem, a lawyer with the Vietnam Human Rights Network, proposed a grassroots solution to the problem of transforming nations into civil societies. He called upon religious leaders to raise their voices and encourage governments to bring themselves into compliance with minimum standards for eliminating “this atrocious crime.” He also urged NGOs and community-based groups to multiply efforts to educate the public, and called on private citizens and businesses to help improve people’s lives.
Wenchi Yu Perkins, Human Rights Program Director for Vital Voices Global Partnership in New York, said that governments should treat human trafficking as a human rights violation, and should not treat victims as smugglers or prostitutes but allocate funds to help them. Nations should take a bottom-up approach, involving public and private resources in tackling the problem.
The State Department’s TIP Report, in its introduction, called human trafficking a multi-dimensional threat. “It deprives people of their human rights and freedoms, it increases global health risks, and it fuels the growth of organized crime. The impact of human trafficking goes beyond individual victims; it undermines the health safety and security of all nations.” SECRETARY OF STATE CONDOLEEZA RICE, WRiting IN THE SEVENTH ANNUAL TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS REPORT 2007, said “DEFEATING HUMAN TRAFFICKING IS A GREAT MORAL CALLING OF OUR DAY. TOGETHER WITH OUR ALLIES AND FRIENDS, WE WILL CONTINUE OUR EFFORTS TO BRING THIS CRUEL PRACTICE TO AN END. TOGETER, WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE.”
To raise public awareness, the themes of this year’s Conference were the “Labor, Legal and Human Rights Implications” of human trafficking. The Conference was built on the previous year’s, held at the U.S. Congress. The conference series was initiated by the Vietnamese-American Voters Association (VAVA), with the first in the series having focused on the three Ps: Prevention, Protection and Prosecution. In 2008, professionals, legislators, government officials, the media, community-based organizations and students will be invited to the third annual conference in Dallas, Texas, to discuss the reintegration and rehabilitation of human trafficking victims.