New York City's borough of Queens, which is home to the city's two major airports, is among the top five regions in the United States for human trafficking, according to U.S. officials. But local officials who combat the problem say a victim does not necessarily need to be transported to be trafficked. Foreign and domestic targets of trafficking are equally subjected to the psychological deceptions of pimps.
According to estimates by the U.S. State Department, as many as 17,000 people, mostly women and children, are transported to the United States each year and forced to work as prostitutes, part of a world-wide phenomenon known as human trafficking. An even greater number of Americans are trafficked, even if they never leave their own neighborhood.
Lori Cohen, an attorney with the Center for Battered Women, explains. "In fact, in neither the federal or the state definition of trafficking is transport anywhere involved. Right here in New York City, you don’t have to cross a state boundary; you don’t even have to go out of your own borough."
Activists say another misconception is that human trafficking necessarily involves kidnapping or brutal force. The U.N. definition of trafficking includes recruitment by "deception," or "abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, for the purpose of exploitation."
Rita Abadi, a manager at the Mount Sinai Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Program in New York, said troubled young women, in the United States or overseas, often are approached by someone who appears loving, who listens to their problems and lures them with the dream of being taken care of. It could be a promise of providing shelter, or a big city job.
"Actually, what this promoter is doing is to know about her life, know about her family, know about her friends," said Abadi. "And this is what is going to be used very, very soon against these girls as a means of control."
Abadi said victims often are impoverished, or lost and desperately lonely, leading to mistaken trust in someone who pretends to listen.
"It’s very, very hard to explain that there is this really, really very unhealthy connection, but this is in some way the only connection they are able to establish."
Sheila White, a Queens native, managed to escape from her pimp and now counsels other girls. White said she left a home where her mother turned to alcohol to cope with violent beatings by the father. After being raped in foster care, she attempted suicide and was placed in a mental institution. White was 15 years old and hardly aware that pimps existed apart from a flashy stereotype.
"I was introduced to this guy, and, for the first time in my life, at that point, I felt like I had someone to listen to me. He listened to all that I had been through. He was very caring and loving towards me. And, at that point, I believed he was going to be my boyfriend."
Having no place to go and no one to talk to, White said, she allowed the man to sell her as a prostitute. Eventually, the young woman managed to turn her life around, and is now a counselor with the Girls Educational and Mentoring Services in New York, an agency that helps girls as young as 12, who have been targets of trafficking.
Cohen said the boyfriends, husbands and even fathers who victimize women engage in what she calls a profound betrayal of love. Cohen said there are instances of women being kidnapped, but, more frequently, they are kept as sex slaves with threats of reprisals against family members. Cohen said debt bondage is another means of control used most commonly against Asian women.
"The women themselves may have debt that needs to be repaid at incredibly high rates that would be impossible for them to ever repay it. Or their family members back home have now been held in these predatory loans, where the family members are entirely dependent on a young woman working here in the United States to pay off this debt."
Cohen said human trafficking also involves demand - customers who pay for sex. She supports enactment of laws to imprison such people. Current legislation targets prostitutes, not clients. But Cohen notes that fewer clients would mean fewer victimized women.