A coalition of women's and human-rights advocates in the United States is pressing New York state legislators to pass a law against human trafficking. Investigators say that traffickers prey on the poor and young in all parts of the world, including East Asia, Africa, the former Soviet Union, Latin America and the United States, where they say New York City is a major port of entry – both for victims trafficked inside the United States and those brought from other countries.
A group of activists say they will protest every week in New York City outside the New York State Supreme Court, until state legislators pass a strong law against human trafficking. “What we need today are modern-day abolitionists,” feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, who chairs the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition, told the crowd of demonstrators at the first protest. Steinem noted that international organizations estimate that four to 12 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, including women and children trafficked for sex, and people of all ages used as forced labor.
"Trafficking in people is bigger than it's ever been,” Steinem told a reporter. “Slavery is bigger now than it was in the 1800s, and more profitable. The estimated profits from it are bigger than that from the illegal arms trade. Because of globalization, the Internet, the increased inequity between nations, and between rich and poor, ease of travel -- all of those things have made slavery much easier, more profitable, and much more prevalent."
The anti-trafficking coalition says the federal law against trafficking doesn't help many victims, because authorities prosecute only the biggest cases. The activists say that most police lack the training to recognize that women arrested as prostitutes, for example, may be trafficking victims. And they say that rape and kidnapping laws do not address the circumstances of human trafficking.
“Sexual assault law is not enough,” Steinem said. “How can you say to a woman who has been kept prisoner for a year, 'Can you prove that you were raped under threat of force by your last customer, and by all your customers?' The laws are just not adequate. You need specific protocols and behaviors so that the law enforcement officials know what to do, know that this is not somebody to be arrested as a criminal, but somebody to be rescued as a survivor of human trafficking."
Kika Cerpa is one of the few victims of sex traffickers who has spoken about her experience. She says she came to New York from Venezuela at age 19, with a boyfriend who promised her a good job. Once here, though, she says, he and a woman confederate took her passport and forced her to work in a brothel in the borough of Queens. She was there for three years.
“I didn't know what to do, who to talk [to], I didn't speak English, I didn't know what to say,” Cerpa, now 34, recalled in an interview at the New York offices of Equality Now, a women’s rights group. “And another thing, when I was working, I was arrested, and I was pleaded guilty. The police never asked me how you ended up here, why are you doing this?"
When police raided the brothel, in fact, the women were charged as prostitutes, and represented in court by the brothel owner's lawyer. Even when Cerpa testified about the murder of another woman in the brothel, her friend Annie, who was killed by a client she had refused, no one realized that they were both trafficking victims.
"After you get in, there's no way to get out,” she said. “You cannot communicate with people, you are afraid to talk to people. You know every time I go outside, I'm afraid everybody recognize me so I live like a hiding-life, for all these three years. I didn't talk to anybody, I didn't have friends. Only the people who were in the situation with me. And when my friend Annie died, when she was killed, I realized that's going to happen to me, too."
After three years, Kika Cerpa managed to escape from the brothel. She is working a regular job now, and raising her young children, the kind of life she dreamed of when she was growing up poor in Venezuela. But she says her years as a virtual captive have marked her forever, and that when she returns to Queens, she sees the same brothels continuing to operate unimpeded. She and other activists hope that New York will soon join 21 other U.S. states that have passed laws against human trafficking.