City To Focus Attention On Human Trafficking

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As disturbing revelations of human trafficking in New York City fade in and out of the headlines one by one, the city plans to deliver more consistent education to the public about this burgeoning problem with a consciousness-raising campaign to be launched in the first quarter of next year.

Often thought of a problem occurring to other people in other parts of the world, trafficking – which according to the UN means “forcible movement of a person from one place to another and forcible utilization of their services with the intention of inducting them into trade for commercial gains” – is very much a domestic concern. “We have to be careful not to define human trafficking as something that’s happening elsewhere and not right here in New York City,” says Norma Ramos, executive director of the NYC-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Recent data from the U.S. Department of Justice shows that more than half of all victims in alleged human trafficking incidents in were U.S. citizens.

In New York state, according to Mayor Bloomberg’s office, there were 46 confirmed victims of trafficking in 2008 and 43 confirmed victims to date this year. And in New York City, between Dec. 2007 and Sept. 2009, there were 262 calls to a national trafficking hotline. The group Fight Slavery Now identifies the city as one of the country’s main ports of entry for trafficking, with JFK airport singled out as major hub.

The fight against “modern-day slavery” is receiving specific focus from the mayor’s office as it steps up the efforts of the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, established in 2006, with a campaign suitably titled, “It’s Happening Here.”

The taskforce, headed by General Counsel to the Mayor Karen Agnifilo, intends to use the campaign to increase awareness, engaging New Yorkers in the fight to end trafficking and encouraging victims to come forward and use the range of services the city provides to assist them. The campaign, along with a new website, will be launched in March. Students and mentors in the Graphic Communications Management and Technology program at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies are donating their creative efforts toward the campaign.

This comes in the wake of the introduction of a raft of bills into the New York state legislature this year to increase education about the problem and assistance for targets or victims.

New York state already is recognized as a leader for its anti-trafficking law, signed by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2007. It strengthened penalties for offenders and was heralded as the strongest and most comprehensive in the country. (Although according to a recent New York Times article it has not led to more arrests, largely because of inadequate police training.)

Mayoral spokesman Jason Post said the new campaign is just the latest city effort to address trafficking. The city task force assisted in passing the state’s groundbreaking anti-trafficking law and laid the groundwork for community awareness by—among other efforts—creating a resource directory on 311 to assist everyone from service providers to law enforcement to the victims themselves.

Jennifer Dreher, the senior director of the anti-trafficking program at Safe Horizon, said that some of their staff members assist with the campaign in the mayor’s office. Dreher points out one of the disheartening realities about victims: “Less than 1 percent come out and say, ‘I am a victim.’ They don’t know how to describe what is happening to them.” In terms of awareness and avenues of redress, she likens it to what domestic violence was 30 years ago.

Dreher is particular about the language used to describe victims, aiming for inclusive terms that include the many forms of coerced travel and labor. The people she serves in NYC reflect a different story than what is generally thought of as human trafficking or even sex trafficking. The majority of her clients are women, with 60 percent trafficked in some form of labor – which can mean stripping, sexualized labor, or being bailarinas—women forced to dance in bars, accompany patrons and encourage them to spend more money that goes to the house. About one-third are in forced prostitution, with 5 percent in other forms including servile marriages.

Anti-trafficking activists say the crime flourishes because it hides in plain sight: among the blatant sex ads in some publications and the eager busboys in restaurants are men and women forced into servitude against their will.

– Rae Gomes

To report a case of human trafficking call the city at 311 or Safe Horizon’s hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE.