Friday, October 23, 2009

Trafficking Survivors Speak Out at the United Nations

From the AP:

UNITED NATIONS — A father of two from Nepal who thought he was going to America wound up in Iraq, forced to work at a U.S. airbase. A 14-year-old Ugandan girl kidnapped by rebels spent nearly eight years in captivity as a sex slave and human shield. And a young Venezuelan woman lured to New York by the man she loved wound up in a brothel his family was running.

The three victims of human trafficking spoke Thursday at an event organized by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay who said it was "pressing and urgent" not only to listen to their stories of survival but to get their recommendations on how the international community can help end the growing global scourge.

"In every part of the world, countless individuals are callously exploited for profit," Pillay said. "While trafficking may be a problem related to migration and to transnational crime, it is also — and fundamentally — an attack on the dignity and integrity of the individual. Trafficking involves practices prohibited in every country including slavery, debt, bondage, forced labor and sexual exploitation."

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who opened the event, said the global economic crisis "is making the problem worse." He urged governments to heed his "call to action" and step up efforts to prevent exploitation, protect victims and pursue traffickers whose conviction rates in most countries "are microscopic compared to the scope of the problem."

The U.N. Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking estimated last year that annual profits from trafficked, forced labor is around $31.6 billion. Some experts say it is now the second-largest illicit business in the world after drugs.

Buddhi Gurung, who calls himself a poor Nepali man, described how he was unable to get a job to support his wife and two sons during fighting by Maoist rebels and the army in 2004. When an agent promised him a job in America for $500 a month, he said he borrowed about $2,800 to pay him — but instead of going to the United States, he was taken to Jordan via New Delhi.

After a month in Jordan, he said he was put in a van with 11 others and driven to Baghdad. Twelve Nepali friends in the van that left just before his were abducted, paraded on television and eventually beheaded. Gurung said he wound up at the U.S. Al Asad Air Base where he was forced to work and paid less than the promised $500 a month.

"We would hear bomb blasts nearby and we knew our life was at risk," Gurung said. "I always wanted to go back to Nepal but neither my passport was with me, nor did I have any money or knew any other way to go back. ... Finally, after 15 months, I was permitted to go back to Nepal. ... This is how my life was saved."

Gurung and the families of the 12 Nepali men have filed a U.S. federal lawsuit accusing Houston-based defense contractor KBR Inc. and a Jordanian subcontractor, Daoud & Partners, of human trafficking.

Gurung urged the "big people" at Thursday's event "to develop a mechanism to save people like me from such traps of human trafficking."

Charlotte Awino described how she and 138 other girls were abducted from a boarding school in 1996 by rebels from the Lords Resistance Army, marched for three months into southern Sudan, and used as human shields during fighting against Uganda soldiers.

"As usual, we girls suffered more," she said. "We were distributed to rebel commanders, as objects without rights, and we were sexually abused. ... I was given to a man who had 20 other abducted girls, and he was a brutal man. I had two children with him."

Awino, who escaped in 2004 when the rebels went back to northern Uganda, urged the U.N. to "try to get back the children who have been trafficked through war, some as young as 6."

She also called for victims to be given counseling, health care and education, for countries to better protect their citizens during war, and for improved methods to track and trace missing people. She also urged understanding for the plight of victims.

"One day I was at home. The next day I was among the rebels," Awino said. "Is everyone going to call us rebels or terrorists?"

Kikka Cerpa described falling in love with a man named Daniel while working at a hotel in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, when she was 17 years old. A few years later, she said, Daniel moved to New York and eventually she went to join him, only to discover that his family ran a sex trafficking ring.

Cerpa said her passport and money were taken, she was put in a basement and told she owed the family a lot of money, and the only way to pay it off was to work in a brothel.

"The first night was the worst," she said, her voice quavering. "I have to service 90 men."

Cerpa said she was trafficked from brothel to brothel over the next three years. Sometimes police would raid the brothels, but "instead of rescuing us, they demand that we perform sexual services on them." After her best friend in the brothel was murdered by a customer, she said, she knew she had to leave — so she married a customer, but he beat her and threatened to have her deported.

Finally, she escaped and was helped by an organization to get a divorce and legalize her status in the U.S.

"I'm telling my story to help all the trafficking victims around the world," she said. "We need to pass and enforce laws that will protect us from traffickers like Daniel."

Cerpa said customers should also be held accountable and "treated like a criminal, like they are," and police officers and prosecutors should be trained to identify and protect victims.

You can find a video of some of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's speech here as well as some of the victims' testimonies.

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