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Trafficking from a racial justice advocate’s point of view

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By Ejim Dike,

As a long-time racial justice advocate, I am often thinking of the intersections between my work and that of related movements. We all know that race, gender, class, and immigration status do not operate in a vacuum, but at times it can be difficult to find ways to incorporate even more nuanced perspectives into our day-to-day work in a practical way. And there is the challenge of learning how to talk about different issues, when addressing the nuances can sometimes make our agendas appear even more complex than they are. This was one of the issues I faced a few years ago, when I was initially introduced to the issue of trafficking in persons.

When I first learned about trafficking, I was horrified by the stories I heard. But as I learned more about the issue and got beyond some of the cursory dialogue, I was struck by the way perspectives on race run through the issue as an important undercurrent. I also noticed that race is rarely addressed directly in this arena.

The reality is, there are all kinds of racial justice implications central in trafficking situations, beginning with the comparisons to the history of slavery in the United States. More recently, traffickers thrived in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In one class action lawsuit, over 500 Indian men were lured to the United States to work in shipyards after Hurricane Katrina through the federal government’s H-2B guest worker program. They arrived in the Gulf region to find themselves in indentured servitude. I recently spoke to a woman who with many others had similarly been misled into coming to the United States post-Katrina with the promise of a good paying job. It is striking that while the government struggled (and still does) to facilitate the return of residents—primarily low-income African Americans—displaced by Hurricane Katrina, traffickers moved to fill the gap with low-income women and people of color brought from their countries to be exploited. The setting is apt for a discussion on the link between trafficking, economic inequality, immigration policy, and discrimination; all of which must be considered to effectively tackle trafficking.

Trafficking is enabled by economic inequality with people trafficked largely from poor or developing countries to destination countries of greater wealth. Most of these poor origin countries happen to have populations that are overwhelming people of color, and within countries, the most vulnerable—poor women and children—are targeted. Be it from Southeast Asia or Mexico to the United States, or Africa to Europe or the Middle East, the pattern is the same. Poverty renders people in desperate situations susceptible to taking risky chances in search of better life opportunities. Most people who are lured into a trafficking situation are already interested in emigrating to find better live opportunities. Others are coerced. The Durban Plan of Action is the document that was adopted by consensus at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR), and it is one of the most important frameworks to date for combating racism and racial discrimination. The Plan of Action recognized the role of economic inequality and called for global cooperation in addressing the root causes of trafficking, specifically mentioning poverty, underdevelopment, and lack of equal opportunity. It recognized that these root causes are sometimes the result of discriminatory practices that make people, particularly women and children, vulnerable to trafficking.

Immigration, employment, and criminal justice policies that have a disproportionate negative effect on people of color also contribute to the problem of trafficking. Once a person is trafficked, they often lack proper documentation and are at risk of deportation. In fact, many traffickers confiscate travel and/or work documents from their victims or threaten them with deportation or imprisonment. In the case of trafficking into sex work, the fact that prostitution is criminalized further drives trafficked persons underground. As a result, victims of trafficking are often reluctant to present themselves to the authorities for fear of being arrested and/or deported. To be clear, they are also afraid of retaliation from the traffickers.

Sadly, discriminatory attitudes and racial bias also play a role which might explain the brazen attitude of traffickers. I am reminded of a television show that had two actors pretending to be a couple in a violent argument. Bystanders who witnessed a provocatively dressed woman being pushed around by a man were unlikely to intervene on her behalf, and when she was black, some onlookers actually openly judged her. Not surprisingly, police are more likely to arrest Black women than white women at a domestic violence incident because of stereotypes of Black women being overly aggressive.

One New York City study found that more than70 per cent of domestic violence cases when both partners are arrested involved people of color. Often trafficked persons operate in the open in our midst, but because of subtle and overt racial bias, we fail to recognize victims. When we do recognize the victim, we don’t always accord him or her the same justice.

Many of the contributing factors to trafficking are seemingly intractable. Economic inequality appears to be growing, not decreasing. Immigration policy is becoming increasingly irrational and punitive, and has exacerbated racial bias and xenophobia. While we acknowledge that these root causes will not be addressed in the short term, they should inform and shape trafficking policy. Trafficking is so abhorrent and naturally elicits emotional responses, sometimes overriding thoughtful policy. Unfortunately, emotion does not always produce good policy. Good policy on trafficking must be consistent with human rights principles and center on respecting the inherent dignity and agency of victims.

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Ejim Dike is Director of the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center. She has worked on social policy issues for over ten years and in the domestic human rights arena for the past eight years. Her human rights work focuses on addressing poverty and discrimination using a human rights framework. Under her leadership, the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center launched an annual report card on the human rights record of New York City Council members. Ms. Dike came to the Urban Justice Center from the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, where she worked for several years to implement programs aimed at increasing access to employment in low-income neighborhoods. She has a Master of Urban Planning from the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service at New York University.