Drug smuggling may top the list of the world’s most profitable and headline-grabbing illegal activities, but second to that —in a close tie with the illegal arms trade — is human trafficking, the recruitment or coercion of people who are held captive as laborers in everything from the sex industry to domestic servitude. More than 12 million people worldwide are currently victims, according to the United Nations' International Labor Organization. The $9 billion industry is the 21st century’s fastest-growing criminal enterprise.
And some of it takes place right here in our own backyard, an audience attending a May 29 conference at Covel Commons on human trafficking found out. In fact, according to experts who provide victims with shelter and other services, human trafficking is on the rise because of the economic downturn.
Ima (who prefers to remain anonymous), shared her experience of spending three years enslaved as a domestic servant in West Los Angeles. Exactly where she doesn’t know – a common blank spot among trafficking victims, who are purposely kept disoriented – but she thinks it was somewhere near Century City.
A native of a tiny Indonesian agricultural village, Ima and her family were among that country’s estimated 116 million citizens who subsist on less than $2 a day. As a teen, she regularly traveled two hours to the city of Surabaya to bring in a little money cleaning houses. During one such trip, she got an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“A woman came to me and said she had a cousin in L.A. who needed a nanny,” Ima recalled. “Would I go to the U.S. and work for her for $150 a month? ‘Yes!’ I told her. ‘Of course!’”
It was 1997, and she was 17 when she excitedly arrived in L.A., only to have her “employer” — an affluent Indonesian woman — confiscate Ima's passport, tell her that she would receive her salary in a lump sum after two years; work her 10-to-18 hours a day, seven days a week, as nanny and housekeeper; and beat her – hitting her in the face and slamming her into walls.
Yet Ima was one of the lucky ones. She wasn’t raped, fed a meal of rice once a day or made to sleep in the doghouse – as other victims have recounted. And luckiest of all, she escaped. With the aid of the housekeeper next door — to whom she secretly passed a note pleading for help — she left, bruised and penniless after three years. She was delivered into the protection of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), a local agency that provides trafficking victims with shelter, counseling, job training and legal services.
Today, nine years later, Ima is married and the mother of three young children. She works in a law office and sends money home to Indonesia when she can afford it.
Ima shared her story at the conference, "Impact of the Economic Crisis: Increase in Reports of Human Trafficking in LA County and Globally," co-sponsored by the Iris Cantor–UCLA Women's Health Center. Professionals from health care, law enforcement, social services and education attended to learn more about the grim realities of human trafficking.
“Human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery, with victims subjected to sexual exploitation or forced labor,” said Kay Buck, CAST executive director. And while cases of sex slaves in brothels and massage parlors tend to grab news headlines, she pointed out, it’s important to realize that countless women and men are also enslaved as domestic servants — as Ima was — as sweatshop laborers, restaurant and construction workers and farm workers.
Los Angeles is one of the top three points of entry into this country for victims of slavery and trafficking, Buck said, where the city’s sprawling and diverse communities make it easier to hide and move victims from place to place, making it very difficult for law enforcement to locate potential survivors. Immigration agents estimate that 10,000 women are being held in Los Angeles' underground brothels alone. But the number of male trafficking victims is on the increase, Buck said.
The current economic meltdown is also adding to the problem. Traffickers, who perceive human beings as commodities to be bought and sold, take advantage of the deepening desperation of those living in impoverished parts of the world. California is one of the top destinations for trafficking victims from Mexico, Latin America and Asia. The Eastern states see more cases coming from eastern Europe and Africa — although in the past two years, said Buck, CAST has seen an increase in victims coming into the L.A. region from Africa. More are also being brought over from the Philippines to work predominantly in nursing homes and other eldercare facilities.
Some progress is being made. In 2004, city officials were stunned to find out that 14 Mexican women and girls were smuggled in and forced into prostitution in a home in South Los Angeles. As a result of this and other incidents around the country, the U.S. Department of Justice offered anti-trafficking grants to local law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). It created the Metropolitan Task Force on Human Trafficking, a coalition of 25 federal and local law enforcement and prosecution agencies and social service providers that work together to identify and aid trafficking victims, said Kimberly Agbonkpolor of the LAPD.
Since then, members of law enforcement have received extensive training to recognize signs of trafficking — from people showing up at hospital emergency rooms with mysterious injuries to signs in the back rooms of businesses that suggest that workers are being forced to live there.
“The crime is very underreported, very underground,” said Agbonkpolor. “A lot of people see things but don’t really know what they’re seeing.”
And challenges to law enforcement remain. Victims are terrified to tell police — or anyone, for that matter — that they are victims. Ima’s employer threatened that if she went to the police, she would be arrested and sent to jail, where other prisoners would rape her. Victims are often told that their families back home will be killed.
The fear engendered by such threats runs deep. Today, nine years after her experience, Ima is still afraid she might run into the woman who enslaved her.
“L.A. is a huge city so I probably won’t,” she said. “But I’ll never go shopping in Century City. Even though I’d like to, I won’t. It’s too scary.”
For more information about human trafficking, visit CAST’s website.