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Senate Hears Testimony from Trafficking Survivors

Just hours after the House Judiciary Committee on April 4 approved a bill to combat international trafficking in women and children, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs held a hearing to discuss the issue. Members of the subcommittee heard the poignant testimony of three women who were trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The subcommittee also heard from the administration as well as several after-care programs.

Subcommittee Chair Sam Brownback (R-KS) opened the hearing, saying, “Conservatively, at least 700,000 women and children are forced into trafficking each year….We must continue to speak out about this insidious practice called trafficking. Every time we expose its tactics through hearings, conferences, and other gatherings, another ray of light invades this darkness.”

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) agreed, saying, “I cannot emphasize enough: trafficking in persons is a human rights problem that requires a human rights response. And yet, more often that not, our government and other governments have hounded the victims, and let the traffickers go free.” William Yeomans of the Department of Justice gave an overview of current prosecution efforts.

Several high profile cases have been successfully prosecuted: one in 1995 involving 70 Thai women and men enslaved in a California sweatshop; another in 1997 involving hearing-impaired Mexicans enslaved in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; and a third in 1998 involving Mexican women and girls enslaved in Florida brothels.

Despite these successes, Mr. Yeomans acknowledged several shortcomings in current law. “We need legislation…that builds upon the existing legal framework to further strengthen the prosecutorial tools available to law enforcement.”

Specifically, Mr. Yeoman suggested that the law be broadened to include a number of trafficking circumstances, such as involuntary servitude, peonage, unlawful exploitative labor conditions, forced prostitution, migrant labor, sweatshop labor, and coerced domestic servitude. He called for increased penalties for traffickers and the creation of a new nonimmigrant “T” visa (see story p. 2).

Additionally, he argued that the definition of coercion should be expanded. “One of the biggest hurdles we face is that the U.S. Supreme Court requires a showing that the defendant used actual force, threat of force, or threat of legal coercion to enslave the victim,” Mr. Yeoman told the subcommittee, adding: “Law enforcement cannot reach and prosecute those who intentionally use more subtle, but no less heinous, forms of coercion that wrongfully keep the victim from leaving his or her labor or service.”

Dr. Lauran Bethel of the New Life Center in Thailand, an after-care center that provides services to women recovering from trafficking, told the subcommittee that after-care programs need to integrate a number of services. According to Dr. Bethel, the women served by her center have immediate physical and psychological health care needs, but they also have a variety of long-term needs, such as educational opportunities, vocational skills, and economic opportunities.

Virginia Coto of the Florida Immigration Center agreed, saying, “trafficking survivors’ needs are unique and these needs cannot be addressed without legislation.”

Natalia Khodyreva of the Angel Coalition, an after-care center in Russia, told the subcommittee that her program seeks to educate Russian women about trafficking. She said that most Russian women do not have accurate information about obtaining visas to work abroad and are easily fooled by traffickers. “Russian women need valid information. We have already lost too many women,” she said.

Requesting anonymity for fear of retribution, the trafficking survivors—a woman from Mexico and two women from Russia—called upon the U.S. to help them and other women like them. “We came to the United States to find a better future, not to be prostitutes….No woman or child would want to be a sex slave and endure the evil that I have gone through,” stated the woman from Mexico.

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