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Trafficking in women, children staggering problem, panel told

WASHINGTON (BP)–The trafficking of women and children, many who are forced into prostitution, is a worldwide human rights problem that may involve 2 million people a year, including 50,000 who are brought into the United States, according to testimony before a Senate subcommittee.

One of the women who has been freed from the sex trade in this country told senators of her ordeal in a string of brothels in Florida.

The number of victims involved in sexual and other forms of trafficking began to grow in the early 1990s and now totals about 700,000 yearly across borders and from 1 million to 2 million overall, said Frank Loy, undersecretary of state for global affairs. He testified before the Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The information the subcommittee heard Feb. 22 made the problem seem even more massive:

— The victims primarily are from Asia, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Latin America and Africa.

— An estimated 1 million children, most from Asia, will be victims of trafficking this year.

— About 500,000 Brazilian children are trafficked into prostitution each year.

— An estimated 250,000 women and children from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are transported per year to other countries, including the United States.

— Almost 200,000 females, most under 18, from Nepal work in brothels in India.

Nearly “every country in the world has a trafficking problem right now,” said Laura Lederer, director of The Protection Project of Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

The trade in human beings has become so profitable that organized crime groups have shifted from trafficking in drugs to trafficking in people, said Wendy Chamberlin, deputy assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement.

Traffickers succeed through either deceit or coercion, according to testimony at the hearing. Some victims are led to believe they will work in legitimate businesses and then are forced into prostitution or other labor, while others are drugged or otherwise abducted.

Inez, who testified in sunglasses and with a scarf on her head in order to disguise her identity out of fear for her safety and that of her family in Mexico, told the senators of her coercion into prostitution at the hands of a group of traffickers.

At age 18, she accepted an offer to work at a job she was told would be at an American restaurant in order to help her family financially. She was transported into Texas, then to a trailer in Florida, where she learned her fate. “I would not be working at a restaurant; instead I was told I owed a smuggling fee of about $2,500 and had to pay if off selling my body to men,” Inez said in Spanish, with her testimony translated for senators. “I was horrified.”

With as many as four girls, some only 14 years old, working in the same trailer, each of them had sex with 32 to 35 men per day, six days a week, at $22 to $25 apiece, Inez testified. They were constantly guarded and, at times, beaten and raped by their bosses, she said. She and the other women were not allowed to leave the trailer, and every two weeks they would be moved to another trailer in an isolated area, Inez said.

After she had been enslaved for several months, agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation and local law offices raided the brothels and rescued the women, she said. Some of their captors were sent to prison, but some remain free in her hometown in Mexico and have threatened her family and those of other women, she said.

“I would have never, ever done this work,” Inez told the subcommittee. “No woman or child would want to be a sex slave and endure the evil that I have gone through. I am in fear of life more than ever. I helped put these evil men in jail. Please help me. Please help us. Please do not let this happen to anyone else.”

Shannon Royce, legislative counsel for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said after listening to the testimony of Inez and others at the hearing, “I was just horrified that this kind of trade in women and children even exists in our world today.

“As we enter a new century, I would love to see us take action to make this part of our history. The 19th century was a century of slavery of African Americans. Part of the 20th century was one of slavery of women and children in sex trafficking, and we’ve got a chance for the 21st century to be a century where this kind of thing truly is not tolerated.”

There is disagreement on how Congress should act to remedy the staggering problem. A House of Representatives bill, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (H.R. 3244), passed the International Relations Committee with bipartisan support, but Loy made it clear at the hearing the Clinton administration does not support the legislation’s call for economic sanctions.

“Trafficking is essentially a private” action, and sanctions would not hurt the perpetrators, Loy said. Other concerns he expressed were: Sanctions would harm victims by hurting the economies of their countries, and they would cripple the work of nongovernmental organizations in those countries.

A leader of a NGO disagreed with Loy’s first reason for opposing sanctions. The privacy of the crime would not be a reason for rejecting sanctions in the case of drugs, said Gary Haugen, president of the International Justice Mission, which investigates reports from faith-based ministries of human rights abuses.

The key to stopping trafficking is local law enforcement, he said.

“The driving force behind sexual trafficking is toleration of forced prostitution” in large cities, Haugen said. The central point is “forced prostitution, and therefore international sexual trafficking, comes down to whether local law enforcement tolerates” it, he said.

Police, who are often bribed to not deal with forced prostitution, will only make this an urgent issue if “they feel something bad will happen to them if they don’t,” Haugen said. It is crucial to “shut down the center that provides the magnet for international sexual trafficking,” he said.

The White House signaled no reversal of its controversial position in international negotiations that would have the effect of liberalizing international sanctions against the sexual exploitation of women and children.

ERLC President Richard Land and other conservatives, as well as feminist leaders, wrote in January to administration members expressing opposition to the United States’ support in United Nations negotiations for a new definition of sexual exploitation that calls for concerted action by the international community only against traffickers involved in “forced prostitution” rather than prostitution. This change would, in effect, rescind a 1949 United Nations agreement requiring its signers to punish those who exploit for prostitution any person, “even with the consent of that person,” according to the letters.

At the hearing, Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., subcommittee chairman, told Loy the end result for victims is what is important and “not whether it’s voluntary on the front end or not.”

He hopes to send a bill to the president this year, and he doubts it will be one the “administration will agree with completely,” Brownback said.