Monday, May 12, 2008

Victims Defend the Accused

A good article that discusses the attachment of trafficking victims to their traffickers. The only issue I have is that, as we have seen in several other articles, smuggling is confused with human trafficking. Also it's good to see Andrea Bertone get interviewed, go visit her excellent

By Brian Donohue


Last September, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested two men and a woman from Togo who they said smuggled 14 girls and young women from West Africa, forced them to work without pay at hair-braiding salons in Newark and East Orange, and kept them in line with threats and beatings.

It was, one agent said, a case of modern-day slavery.

Now, four of the alleged victims say they weren't exploited at all.

Rather, they described the three people charged in the case, Lassissi Afolabi, 44, Akouavi Kpade Afolabi, 39, and Dereck Hounakey, 30, as benevolent parent figures who rescued them from misery in their African village, where drinking water was hauled from a stream each day and their parents struggled to feed their families.

They say they long to return to the hair salons -- even if they weren't paid for their long hours performing intricate hair weaves. And worse, they say, their parents in Africa are blaming them for the downfall of the three jailed suspects, who had been sending money to the workers' families before the salons were shut.

When she calls home, says one 21-year old woman, her parents blame her for disappointing the village, then they hang up on her.

"I can't take it any more," said the woman, who, like all of those interviewed requested her name be withheld because she is a witness in an active criminal investigation.

"Before, we were happy," she added, shaking and visibly nervous as she spoke. "Now we are not happy. My life is going to hell."

Prosecutors and social workers cast doubt on the women's statements, noting such victims remain vulnerable long after they are pulled from abusive situations. They also fear the women may have been coerced to protect the suspects, or have developed a psychological attachment to them.

Nonetheless, no one involved in human trafficking can recall a case, in New Jersey or elsewhere, in which victims have launched such a defense of their alleged abusers.

Their account shines a rare light into the complex world investigators and prosecutors navigate battling human trafficking -- where toughened U.S. laws and hard evidence often collide with complex victim pathologies and conflicting cultural and economic norms.

"This is not an unusual case, although it's complicated, and it's heart-wrenching for these girls," said Andrea Bertone, executive director of, an anti-trafficking organization in Washington, D.C. "They don't think of themselves as victims, but our law defines them as such," she said.

"It makes it difficult for prosecutors emotionally, but our laws are very clear: You can't bring them here to work and keep them in these conditions."

Read the full article

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