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Human Trafficking and Telling Stories

I recently read Wendi Adelson’s book on human trafficking This is Our Story, and can’t get the stories out of my head. I find myself walking down the street, thinking of Ana, a 14-year old girl raped every day by her 17-year-old captor, and lying in bed thinking of Rosa, a girl forced to be a sex slave. As I think about these girls, and my reaction to the very traumatic experience of multiple, daily rapes, I wonder about the purpose of such provocative, heart-breaking stories.

In this book, Professor Adelson does a fantastic job of weaving together three stories: her story, the story of a 13-year old girl from Argentina, and the story of an 18-year old young woman from Slovakia. The stories of the two young victims of human trafficking are heart-breaking, horrendous, and full of evil men and women. The form she chooses is compelling: each protagonist writes in her diary and the book alternates between the diary entries of each.

I read their stories and wonder, “What’s next?” “What am I supposed to do now?” Am I supposed to be compelled to action to stop human trafficking? If so, who should we go after? International prostitution rings? Individual human traffickers? Should I insist on more police investigations, harsher sentences for traffickers, or more informational pamphlets in immigrant neighborhoods and airports? I am reminded of fliers I have seen in immigrant-rights agencies and in airports in Peru designed to raise awareness of human trafficking. Do we need more of those fliers? What can we do to stop such extreme suffering?

At one point in the book, the neighbors call the police because they see Rosa, a 14-year old girl, outside taking a shower with the hose. (She does this because her captors refuse her access to the shower.) The neighbors call the police as they are suspicious about the girl’s presence in the house and wonder if she ever goes to school. The police come by, but Rosa’s captors convince them that Rosa is their daughter and goes to school each day. Rosa is subsequently beaten horribly. Perhaps it would have been better if the neighbors hadn’t called the police. Or, perhaps the police should have been trained better.

As I am reading the story of Mila, a young woman from Slovakia, I wonder why she doesn’t escape. She is forced to work days in a Chinese restaurant, and then nights as an exotic dancer. In addition, she is emotionally, physically, and sexually abused by her captor. One evening, she decides to flee. She is quickly caught hundreds of miles away. Instead of being taken back to her former captors, she is forced into prostitution as punishment. Running away made her bad situation even worse.

As a social scientist, I want to know how common this sort of extreme human trafficking is. Are most prostitutes and exotic dancers forced into these professions? Are all Chinese restaurants staffed by overworked, exploited slaves?

I am also trying to tease out my own emotional reaction – my personal horror at the gruesome stories versus the social scientist in me who doesn’t want to hear yet another story about how self-sacrificing white lawyers and police officers come to the rescue of poor, helpless sex slaves. On the other hand, who else would save them?

Also, whose fault is it that these young women are trafficked? Is it the government of Argentina, who did not do its diligence to ensure that Rosa did not travel abroad as the supposed daughter of the people who would become her captors? Is it the Slovakian government who did not do its job of informing young Slovakians about the risks of responding to newspaper ads advertising work in the United States? Does the fault belong to the US government, which creates fear by handing out harsh punishments for undocumented immigrants and creating a situation where you need a highly qualified lawyer to save a young girl from trafficking and a deft human trafficker just to get in the country? Does the fault lie with the evil captors, who are just horrible people?

The social scientist in me is not ready to accept the horrible people/helpless victim/heroic savior story. I suppose, however, that this is not the purpose of the book. The purpose of the book is to raise consciousness about human trafficking. In my case, I already knew that human trafficking existed. I have seen cases of human trafficking on television crime series, and I read about child slaves and sex slaves in another book – Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the Global Economy. The stories in This is Our Story haunt me, but they don’t make it clear what the next steps are or should be.

I suppose the book might make me or others more likely to donate money to a shelter for victims of human trafficking, but I know the problem runs deeper than that. So, where does that leave me? I am not sure.

One thing I do know is that the book leaves me pondering one big question: How bad do situations have to be for us to be compelled to do something? I honestly can’t imagine anyone reading this book and thinking that this extreme form of exploitation is unacceptable. However, how bad does it have to be for us to get up in arms? The girls and young women in this book were subjected to repeated physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by various people for over a year. What if the situation were not so severe?

  • What if you knew that it was common practice for restaurants in your town to not pay undocumented workers, and that their only wages were tips?
  • What if you found out that the gardeners for a local company never paid its undocumented workers overtime?
  • What if you learned that people in your neighborhood picked up undocumented day laborers, agreed to pay them $80 a day, and then gave them $40 at the end of the day?

Would those stories compel you to action? I can assure you that the three scenarios above are likely happening on a daily basis not too far from you. The more extreme cases of human trafficking are also happening, although they are less common. What all of these scenarios share in common is that vulnerable people are made more vulnerable by laws that prevent them from realizing their dreams.

In This is Our Story, Rosa and Ana travel to the United States under false pretenses because there was no way for them to do so legally. This minor transgression opened the way for a series of other much more serious transgressions. Similarly, Mila entered on a temporary visa to work in a restaurant, also likely under false pretenses. Once her visa expired, she felt even more bound to her captors. The three scenarios with undocumented workers I explained above are also made more feasible because of laws that render people without authorization to live and work in the United States more vulnerable.

If This is Our Story compels its readers to fight to change these laws, that would be a good thing. If, instead, readers are only successful at further criminalizing human trafficking, we will not be any closer to the goal of ensuring fundamental human rights for all.

Tanya Golash-Boza is the author of: Yo Soy Negro Blackness in PeruImmigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 Americaand Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States.

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Tanya Golash-Boza is the author of: Yo Soy Negro Blackness in PeruImmigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 Americaand Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States. Her new book Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism will be published by NYU Press in 2015.

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