Sunday, January 20, 2008

Massage Parlor Arrests in Western New York

Before I left for Ukraine, I had heard a bit about the problem of human trafficking in my home area of Western New York and had met with the head of an anti-trafficking task force at the International Institute of Buffalo who works with the government and law enforcement to help tackle the problem. I know that one of the first cases in the U.S. brought under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 was carried out in WNY.

News coming out of my hometown now reveals that a task force of local, state and federal law enforcement officers have arrested four in a case dealing with forced prostitution of immigrants working in local massage parlors. The article is definitely written by someone who skeptically approaches the investi
gation, arrests, and basically the whole nature of the problem, but provides information from both sides- both the government and some people who believe these victims weren't really victims. The opening sentences of the article immediately set a tone of dubiety for the reader-

One prostitute was a former elementary school principal. Another lived in a house on Grand Island. Another lived with her husband in an apartment in Niagara Falls.

The three were among nine Asian women federal agents say they "rescued" from indentured prostitution when they raided four massage parlors in Erie and Niagara counties last month.

The fact they're automatically labeled as prostitutes indicates the author believed they gave absolute consent to providing sexual services to parlor customers, and the word "rescued" being put in quotations signifies the author's belief they weren't in an untenable situation. I'm not positive what the first sentence is all about. I'm assuming he meant an elementary school teacher in China because none of the victims had fluency in English.

This hits on an important point. While most victims lived in poverty in their home country, it doesn't mean that necessarily all of them were or even that they're uneducated. In fact, in Ukraine we've been finding that even people with advanced university degrees have become victims of trafficking. Its not solely a matter of education, awareness, and poverty. While all of these things matter, and improvements in those situations would definitely help curtail the problem, its also a matter of demand and fraud.

Erie County Sheriff's Deputy Elizabeth Fildes, who helped work on the case, described the process fairly well.

A man or a woman [by the way, I'm glad she said either/or], sometimes living in poverty overseas, is told of a job opportunity in the United States. The job is described as a legitimate position. The victims are charged a fee in exchange for getting to the new place, a fee that must be repaid.

When they finally arrive, they don't get the job they were expecting.

And the workers' debt isn't going away. In most cases, they have a limited education, and they don't know anyone in this new place. More importantly, they don't know whom to trust.

Sometimes women are promised jobs in legitimate massage parlors. They're told the work wouldn't involve performing sex acts, but their need to pay back their debt often means they end up engaging in illicit activity.

And guess who helps to make sure the illicit activity is available? The parlor owners, who then get an enormous share of the money made off of the transaction.

The issue of trust is a particularly important point as well. This is something that might be hard to imagine unless you've been outside your own country in a place where you don't understand the language very well and only know a handful of people, namely your traffickers and the other victims. You obviously don't know the laws, and you don't know who will believe and protect you, and who will abuse you or deport you back to the situation you've sacrificed so much to get away from.

And rightly so. The court papers indicate in this case that three of the victims' customers were a judge, an immigration official, and a police captain.

The author then cites a woman who does work as a prostitute in California, and advocates on behalf of a sex workers union who shockingly (and I say that with sarcasm) questions that these women were victims of any sort. Apparently from her experience, even though she is not familiar with this case, immigration and prostitution together hits a "panic button" that cause people to automatically label it as trafficking. Good to know there are people like this woman to keep a level head.

However, as Taina Bien-Amie of Equality Now puts it in the article:

"You don't have to have a gun pointed at your head or be chained to a radiator to be a victim of human trafficking," she said. "Under federal and state anti-trafficking laws, saying the women gave their consent is not a legal defense."


  1. Anonymous6:28 AM

    Fight against human trafficking continues, data reveal

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    EU human trafficking expected 'to boom'

  3. Anonymous6:45 AM

    14 trafficked women rescued in Lucena

  4. Anonymous6:46 AM

    Cops sensitise to prostitute problems

  5. Anonymous6:47 AM

    Woman battles human trafficking

  6. Anonymous6:48 AM

    Behind the scenes of human trafficking

  7. Anonymous6:49 AM

    More charges in Toronto human trafficking ring

  8. UN.GIFT (United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking ) website aims to be an extension of UN GIFT activities worldwide. We would like it to evolve into a vibrant online community where people exchange views, showcase their work, talk about their experiences to strengthen the fight against human trafficking. With your help we can make it a valuable resource to take this fight forward. Organized crime of human trafficking needs a fitting organized response.
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