Christina N. Stewart
13 August 2017
If there’s one crime that can completely strip a person of their very basic human rights, that is a low-risk and high profitable trade, that completely dehumanizes and erodes human dignity, it is human trafficking. At a time when there is such a push toward equality and justice, there are currently an estimated 45.8 million people enslaved in the world today according to the Global Slavery Index. This is a greater number than at any other point in history (The Global Slavery Index, 2016). As the world is becoming more and more globalized, trafficking is becoming more prevalent and lucrative. It facilitates the transfer of commodities—which are human beings in this case— and makes it easier for criminal syndicates to thrive (Brewer, 2009). When it comes down to it, human trafficking is a matter of supply and demand. As long as there is a demand, the egregious practice of trafficking will continue.
Without a doubt, trafficking is extremely hidden and underground, and traffickers reap enormous profits. In fact, according to a report by the International Labour Organization (2014), human trafficking is estimated to be a $150 billion industry, and is believed to be the third-largest criminal activity in the world after drugs and firearm trafficking. Of the $150 billion—which was reported on in 2014—it is estimated that “two thirds of [this total], or $99 billion, came from commercial sexual exploitation, while another $51 billion resulted from forced economic exploitation, including domestic work, agriculture and other economic activities (International Labour Organization, 2014). As with any illegal trade, and because the crime is so hidden and underreported, an actual figure of the profits is undeterminable. These numbers are eye-opening. To think that these are only estimates and that the number may be higher now in 2017 is astonishing to me.
The interconnectedness of trafficking is perhaps one of the most riveting pieces of information I’ve come across. The scale of human trafficking is atrocious. It goes way beyond the abuses on fishing vessels in Thailand, in factories in Bangladesh and Russia, in cotton fields of Uzbekistan, in Syrian and Nigerian army training camps where child soldiers are forced to train, and in hotels, brothels and apartments in the United States. Human trafficking occurs in virtually every country in the world and often crosses borders—meaning nearly every country in the world could be considered a country of origin, destination, or transit for trafficking. Both industrialized and developing countries partner to engage in trafficking. The United States of America is included in this partnership. Although the United States may not have as high a prevalence of human trafficking as developing countries, this modern-day slavery is undoubtedly present, and could be occurring right in your own neighborhood.
I wanted my research to shed light on trafficking in America and to dispel the myth that it’s an overseas problem. The U.S. Department of State reports that over 17,000 trafficking victims are brought into the United States every year from foreign countries while thousands more are trafficked within the United States. To give more of a visual representation, the five states with the most reported cases of trafficking in 2016 were California, Texas, Florida, Ohio, and New York (National Human Trafficking Hotline). I wasn’t surprised that California, Texas, Florida, and New York had such high incidents of trafficking; these states have a large concentration of immigrants and are in close proximity to major ports of entry—making them ideal locations for trafficking to occur. That being said, I never considered Ohio to be an area of concern. It’s a relatively small state and I always figured that states with larger populations would bear the brunt of trafficking rates. It goes to show that human trafficking really is hidden and can happen where you least expect it to. Force, fraud and coercion— the three main elements of human trafficking—can happen anywhere.
Considering the fact that cities are notorious for trafficking, I decided to focus my efforts on trafficking in New York City. Without even knowing it, you’ve most likely driven the same routes, passed through the same airports, and walked the same streets as those who operate human trafficking networks. NYC is a breeding ground for this modern-day slavery. An article by Sarah Pierce (2014) states that the FBI has actually identified it as a “major artery of human trafficking” due to its “large immigrant population, close proximity to major international airports and other ports of entry, and its concentration of formal and informal industries that lack close regulation.” New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport has even been listed as “one of the top five airports where victims enter the country” (Pierce, 2014). When you think about it, the city is the perfect environment for traffickers to thrive, but I never realized the extent to which it happens in this heavily populated, tourist destination.
New York has had such a problem with human trafficking that members of their judicial system decided to create specialized courts dedicated to the crime. With locations all throughout the five boroughs, NY was the first state to implement the new system of courts. I think this was a great creation. Since prosecutions for trafficking cases are typically very low, having courts that specialize in prosecuting this particular offense increases the likelihood of more prosecutions. For an issue of its caliber, I think this establishment was a necessary action for the court system. It represents a shift in how the judicial system now views victims as actual victims instead of criminals and prostitutes.
While New York City as a whole may have a problem with human trafficking, Queens is undoubtedly the center of the city’s trafficking problem. The neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Corona, Flushing, and Woodside are known by law enforcement as hotspots for trafficking. According to Jimmy Lee, executive director at Restore, which offers safe homes for trafficking victims, Queens “is not only the epicenter for trafficking foreigners in New York, it really is [the epicenter for trafficking] on the entire East Coast” (Spagnuolo, 2015). Trafficking networks run from New York up and down New England, and victims often report getting their start in Flushing and first coming to Queens when they immigrated. And while a large population of victims in Queens are foreign, the U.S. Department of Justice says “the number of human sexual trafficking victims in the United States who are American [citizens] is 83 percent”—greater than the amount of foreign victims in Queens (Spagnuolo, 2015). The large amount of immigrants in Queens makes it easy for foreign victims to blend in. Flushing in particular has a large Asian population, while Corona has a large Spanish population. The Asian population is so dense that “if someone told you you were in mainland China or Korea or an Asian city you could believe them,” says Lee. These are hidden victims in a bustling neighborhood. Out of so many places in the country, it’s crazy to think that a place as close as Queens could be a focal point in the underground trade of this illegal enterprise.
The human rights violation in Queens is so extensive that one particular avenue—Roosevelt Avenue—is considered to be a mecca for trafficking out of all the five boroughs. The Roosevelt Avenue corridor in Corona and Jackson Heights is lined with several brothels, bars, and clubs, says New York State Senator Jose Peralta, and “once one gets shut down, another one opens up” (Kern-Jedrychowska, 2014). Many pimps in Queens target immigrant women who live nearby. They have operated like this for decades and continue to make enormous profits from their practices.
There is a systematic process that pimps go through to recruit their victims. Reporter Kirstin Cole explains that “Thousands of women are brought to New York from Mexico [to make money for their pimps].” The pimps hand out cards, called “chica cards”, with each card having a picture of a woman and a phone number listed—promising 24-hour delivery via livery cab to anyone who calls. In addition to handing out these chica cards, people will also “whisper offers of massages in different languages” and those who accept the invitation will be taken to a brothel “hidden amongst neat row houses or in an apartment on busy Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights” (Cole). Livery cabs are not like the traditional taxi cabs that are bright yellow and easily detectable; they are much more subdued. They are cars for hire, are often black in color, and usually have no clear identification indicating that they are a cab. This is probably why traffickers use livery cabs instead of taxis. They blend in easier and can easily go undetected. For this reason, I think livery cab drivers should undergo training on how to recognize and report possible victims. A similar initiative has been taken by Marriott International which requires mandatory human rights and human trafficking training for its employees.
As mentioned before, a large number of women who end up in the New York City area have been funneled into the country from Mexico. In the small Mexican town of Tenancingo, known as Mexico’s sex trafficking capital, many boys aspire to become pimps and traffickers. It’s a kind of family business that is multigenerational. The New York Daily News explained that families in Tenancingo will send their “youngest and most handsome men across Mexico to pose as salesmen with nice clothes and fancy cars” in an effort to lure unsuspecting women into trafficking. The traffickers often lure the women to the U.S. one at a time by engaging them in romantic relationships and promising them a better life in New York. After the women are smuggled from Mexico to New York, they soon realize that they’ve essentially given up their freedom; they won’t receive a better life or have a legitimate job, but rather a life filled with trauma, abuse, and destruction. The victims are often beaten, threatened with physical harm to themselves and their family members, sexually assaulted, and verbally abused.
The trauma and abuse that follows these women from Mexico all the way to Queens is unimaginable and atrocious. Once in Queens, women are commodities. Tangible items. They can be ordered by johns and all it takes is one simple phone call. As stated in an article by the New York Daily News, victims are estimated to service up to 35 johns a day which makes the traffickers about $100,000 a year (Pearson, 2012). As with any data regarding trafficking, this number is just an estimate as it is nearly impossible to know exact profits. That being said, whatever money the women make is wired back to Tenancingo. It’s a vicious cycle that has been occurring for years, yet it doesn’t seem like anything is being done to extinguish the numerous trafficking enterprises. All it takes is a quick search for Tenancingo on Google and you’ll find headline after headline and article after article detailing tales of exploitation. It is in plain sight, and it makes me question why the Mexican government hasn’t done anything to address it.
Aside from crossing the tangible borders of countries, trafficking also crosses the invisible borders of the Internet through websites like backpage.com. On backpage.com, pimps and traffickers frequently promote their businesses and recruit new victims. I was unaware that websites like this even existed, and I find it appalling that such outlets even exist. It’s concerning to know that with just a few clicks you can literally order someone just as you would order a pizza and have them delivered to you in as little as 24 hours. There has been much concern and investigation over backpage.com, but attempts to regulate the site haven’t gotten very far. The website claims to be “a passive carrier of ‘third-party content’ with no control of sex-related ads posted by pimps, prostitutes and organized trafficking rings” (Jackman & O’Connell, 2017). I know it’s virtually impossible to monitor everything that gets posted online, but there definitely should be more regulation as to what can be posted. How this regulation will come about remains to be seen.
Despite all the research I’ve come across, my main challenge has been trying to find incident reports for the crime mapping portion of this project. Human trafficking is severely underreported which makes it difficult to find accurate statistics and incident reports. Many victims are scared to come forward, and those who do often face prosecution instead of their traffickers. All in all, it’s clear that the underreporting of human trafficking and the way in which such crimes are reported need to be addressed by law enforcement agencies as well as other organizations. This issue can’t just be dealt with on the law enforcement front, but also on the legislative and non-governmental agency level. It must be a collaborative effort.
Before this project, I had no idea that such a heinous crime was so rampant in New York City. It’s a bit strange to think that the places you’ve visited and walked past have also been visited by traffickers and trafficking victims. The trafficking could’ve been occurring right in front of you, but you would likely never realize. This is something that I often find myself thinking about ever since starting the project.
Reading countless victim interviews, the different types of slavery that occur throughout the world, and the tremendous devastation of this atrocity has definitely been an eye-opener. I find myself telling people in my everyday life about facts I’ve learned from this project because I feel it’s so important to raise awareness and educate those who are unaware of the horrors of this deplorable threat. Thankfully, I will have the opportunity to do just this at the International Journal of Arts and Sciences academic conference in Germany this November. Being able to speak on the issue and on my findings from this project on such a large platform has the potential to reach a global audience. It is my hope that I can be a voice for the millions of people living under exploitation all over the world.
Above all, human trafficking is an issue that cuts across class, gender and age without reservation. It cannot be tolerated in a civilized society. It’s an erosion of human rights. It is an assault on human dignity and should be treated as nothing less.
Brewer, D. (2009). Globalization and Human Trafficking . Topical Research Digest : Human Rights and Human Trafficking. Retrieved August 4, 2017, from http://www.du.edu/korbel/hrhw/researchdigest/trafficking/Globalization.pdf
Cole, K. (2016, November 23). Victim, forced to work as prostitute for years, highlights perils of NYC sex trafficking business. Retrieved August 07, 2017, from http://pix11.com/2016/11/22/victim-highlights-perils-of-nyc-sex-trafficking/
The Global Slavery Index. (2016). Findings- Global Slavery Index 2016. Retrieved August 04,2017, from https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/findings/
International Labour Organization. (2014, May 20). ILO says forced labour generates annual profits of US$ 150 billion. Retrieved August 04, 2017, from http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_243201/lang–en/indexhtm
Jackman, T., & O’Connell, J. (2017, July 11). Backpage has always claimed it doesn’t control sex-related ads. New documents show otherwise. Retrieved August 08, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/backpage-has-always-claimed-it-doesnt-control-sex-related-ads-new-documents-show-otherwise/2017/07/10/b3158ef6-553c-11e7-b38e-35fd8e0c288f_story.html?utm_term=.d5e12be466ad
Kern-Jedrychowska, E. (2014, July 21). Roosevelt Avenue Is ‘Epicenter’ of NYC Sex Trafficking, Officials Say. Retrieved August 07, 2017, from https://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20140718/kew-gardens/roosevelt-avenue-is-epicenter-of-nyc-sex-trafficking-officials-say
National Human Trafficking Hotline. (2016). Hotline Statistics. Retrieved August 04, 2017, from https://humantraffickinghotline.org/states
Pearson, E. (2012, June 03). Small Mexican town of Tenancingo is major source of sex trafficking pipeline to New York. Retrieved August 09, 2017, from http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/small-town-tenancingo-mexico-city-source-new-york-sex-slaves-article-1.1088866
Pierce, S. (2014, November 03). Top 4 States for Human Trafficking. Retrieved August 05, 2017, from http://www.humantraffickingsearch.net/wp1/top-4-states -for-human-trafficking
Spagnuolo, C. (2015, July 30). Human Trafficking Common in Flushing. Retrieved August 06, 2017, from http://www.qchron.com/editions/queenswide/human-trafficking -common-in-flushing/article_07f82011-560b-5215-9c7b-df841b802d7e.html