Afong means strength

[Here is a sneak peek at the Preface to my book manuscript on trafficked children]

It was a crisp fall afternoon in 2013. I was waiting in front of the Silver Diner in suburban Maryland to meet Evelyn. Several years older than when I first interviewed her, Evelyn has not lost her exuberance. Pushing her 10-month old son in a stroller to the restaurant where we planned to have a late lunch, Evelyn smiled and waved as soon as she spotted me. With one hand holding onto the baby’s carriage, she used her other arm to envelop me in a warm hug.

Evelyn is a survivor of domestic servitude. For two years she lived in her trafficker’s house in Greenbelt, Maryland, completely isolated from outside contact: she was not permitted to speak with her family or even answer the door. She was not allowed to go to school. In 1995, Evelyn’s mother and uncle sold her to Theresa Mubang, an acquaintance of Evelyn’s maternal uncle, to settle an old land dispute in Cameroon. Mubang brought Evelyn to the United States when she was barely 10 years old. Mubang, a naturalized US citizen, traveled on an American passport, but Evelyn used fraudulent documents to cross international borders. Evelyn thought she was coming to the U.S. to fulfill her childhood dream of attending an American school, but the reality was different from the life she imagined watching The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Instead of the idyllic life of hopping on a school bus every morning, learning English, and making new friends, Evelyn had been forced to care for Mubang’s young children around-the-clock and perform never-ending household chores. When she was allowed to rest, she slept on the floor. If her cleaning was not up to Mubang’s standards, Evelyn was beaten with an extension cord or locked up in a basement without food. Mubang’s son urinated on Evelyn regularly to humiliate her. When she tired of beating Evelyn, her captor scratched the girl. If ever there was a poster child for a trafficked minor, Evelyn is it.

Evelyn’s body testifies to the physical violence she had endured: she has scars and burns to remind her of the ordeal. A decade after she escaped, Evelyn still gets emotional recounting not just the scars on her body, but also the verbal abuse Mubang wielded as skillfully as the rod used to discipline Evelyn. However, the insults, the cruelty, and the violence did not squash Evelyn’s spirit. Throughout her ordeal Evelyn refused to give up. She persisted, day by day, with a defiantly hopeful outlook and a head held high.

When the opportunity arose, Evelyn escaped. She found help, first from a distant relative and then from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS). In 2003, when Evelyn was nearing her 13th birthday, the U.S. federal government officially recognized Evelyn as a trafficked child. She was now eligible for federally funded assistance to victims of child trafficking—help was on its way. Evelyn is grateful to LIRS, to her foster “auntie”, and first and foremost to her pro bono attorney, Melanie Orhant. With Orhant’s expert legal assistance, Evelyn received a special visa for victims of trafficking (T-Visa) allowing her to stay in the country, be placed in foster care, and attend school. Throughout this lengthy process, Evelyn observed Orhant, at the time a managing attorney for the Break the Chain Campaign, helping other victims rebuild their lives in America. Melanie’s passion and dedication inspired Evelyn. During our first interview in 2006, Evelyn told me she wanted to be like Melanie: advocate on behalf of trafficked victims, participate in anti-trafficking activities, and lead support groups for survivors. Truth be told, I was a bit skeptical about her ability to accomplish her goals. Evelyn has proven me wrong; she has achieved her dream of becoming a self-described “activist against modern day slavery.” Evelyn speaks at events for Break the Chains Campaign and collaborates with Survivors of Slavery, a non-profit organization, which, ”supports survivors of modern slavery who want to lend their voice to the 21st century abolitionist movement.” Recently, Evelyn went on a retreat with a group of young women who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation. She said that she drew strength from the retreat and hoped that sharing her story was helpful to the other women.

Evelyn’s strength manifests itself in many different ways. An excellent student in Cameroon with a strong yearning to learn new things, Evelyn was told over and over again that she was “dumb”, “dirty”, and “unworthy”, and that she would never amount to much. Though she struggled in high school in America, these insults did not prevent Evelyn from pursuing her dream of attending college. While her spoken English was passable, she was illiterate in English. Reading, writing, and solving math problems posed insurmountable challenges at times. Discouraged, she dropped out, but not for long. She enrolled in a GED program and after getting her diploma went on to earn an associate degree in social work from a local community college. With a new boost of confidence, she enrolled in an online BA program in homeland security at University of Maryland. She will graduate in May of 2015.

Strong and determined to succeed, Evelyn continues to show incredible resiliency in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, her life is not free of struggles. A few years ago a stranger in the street raped her at gunpoint. She thought that she would not be able to trust a man ever again. Yet a few years later she found a loving partner in Malcolm, the father of her son. Their son Molima, “My Heart”, as his father calls him, is the center of Evelyn and Malcolm’s lives. Evelyn and Malcolm are engaged to be married. They are hopeful for a good family life.

A few dark clouds still overshadow Evelyn’s happiness. For a long time, she could not understand why her mother sold her to a stranger. How could a mother give up her own flesh and blood? The inability to understand her mother’s actions weighted so heavily on Evelyn that she fell into depression. She thought that the only way she could shake off the feeling of despair would be to confront her mother. With the help of an older brother living in Europe, Evelyn saved money for an airline ticket and in 2012 went to Cameroon. Evelyn shared with me excerpts from the journal she kept while visiting her family in Cameroon.

She left her homeland a little girl of nine, taken across the ocean by a stranger, but returned on her own terms, a young woman of 27. Although bitter about her mother’s involvement in her trafficking, Evelyn was startled by her own joy and excitement at seeing her mom. Tears ran down both of their cheeks as they hugged for the first time in almost two decades. Evelyn’s mother would not let go of her daughter even when Evelyn’s siblings came to embrace her. Surrounded by family members, mother and daughter held each other for over an hour.

A few days after visiting her mom and then her dad, Evelyn finally met her maternal uncle, a man she used to call father. Burdened by the thought of being treated as chattel, Evelyn confronted her uncle. Looking him in the eye, Evelyn wanted to know what role he played in her trafficking. At first he said he merely arranged for Mubang to take Evelyn with her to the States, but later admitted that money changed hands. Fearing that other people in her hometown might treat their children like disposable goods, Evelyn spent a few days organizing meetings and speaking to parents, children, and civil society groups about child trafficking and its effects on young victims. Ever the activist, she hopes that these discussions will raise awareness about trafficking in children.

Today, Evelyn is not free of economic difficulties. Recently, she lost her job as a security guard. “It was one of those ‘he said, she said’ stories; my word against my co-worker’s word,” she told me. The company let her go. Unfortunately, Evelyn did not qualify for unemployment benefits. As a result her fiancé is now the sole breadwinner. An artist from Cameroon, Malcolm has to supplement rare artistic commissions with a job as a manual laborer. They try to economize as best as they can, but some days they go to bed hungry. Evelyn is ill-prepared to understand the intricacies of networking and job-hunting in America. She wishes that the programs providing assistance to survivors of trafficking focused less on mental health counseling and more on employment services.

As we finish up our lunch, Evelyn says she has faith that things will improve. I do not doubt that Evelyn will persevere. Afong is Evelyn’s middle name, given to her by her grandmother, and afong means strength in the language of Evelyn’s childhood.

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Low hanging fruit: Domestic minor sex trafficking v. foreign-born trafficked children

I have been conducting empirical research on child trafficking in the United States for over a decade. I began by “studying up”: looking at existing decision-makers, policies, and programs set up to prevent child trafficking, protect trafficked children, and prosecute perpetrators. Access to trafficked children and adolescents, guarded by their protectors almost as closely as by their traffickers, was impossible and research funds scarce; most of the money appropriated by the US Congress for anti-trafficking activities was spent on direct services to victims or information campaigns. Later on, as I gained trust of service providers, I was slowly able to meet a few survivors of child trafficking and begin “studying down”: examining the perspectives of survivors of child trafficking, analyzing the meaning they ascribe to their trafficking experiences, and identifying the matters that concern them as they rebuild their lives in America. In 2005, I received a grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and started interviewing survivors of child trafficking and their helpers in earnest. This research has served as a springboard for a book project on survivors of child trafficking.

At the time of my first foray into the field of child trafficking, the anti-trafficking efforts focused solely on foreign-born victims of child (and adult) trafficking. Under federal law, enshrined in the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), child victims of severe forms of human trafficking were defined as individuals under 18 years of age who have been induced to perform commercial sex acts or have been recruited, harbored, transported, provided, or obtained for labor or services through the use of “force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude.” While the TVPA of 2000 was silent on the issue of victims’ place of birth, the assumption was that the law was created to provide services and benefits to undocumented victims who otherwise might have been simply deported. It was presumed that U.S. citizens and other lawful residents already had access to the state and federal programs unavailable to their undocumented counterparts.

However, by late 2005, human rights and child advocates started expanding the category of trafficked children. Victims of child trafficking were no longer limited to foreign-born minors trafficked across international borders. “Advocates argued that there was a class of domestic trafficking victims: U.S. citizens and residents who travelled inside national borders as forced laborers—invariably young people and children used for sex.” As a result of these advocacy efforts, the TVPA was amended in 2008 to include domestic trafficking victims: U.S. citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs). This cohort is comprised mainly of persons whom we used to call commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC). More recently, this phenomenon is referred to as “domestic minor sex trafficking” (DMST) and defined as “the commercial sexual abuse of children through buying, selling, or trading their sexual services.”

As a scholar of international migration I focus on mobility across international borders and therefore continue to study exclusively foreign-born trafficked children and adolescents. However, in this essay I want to examine how the rhetorical and policy shift to domestic youth in prostitution has affected the broader efforts to fight trafficking of foreign nationals, especially children and adolescents, both in the sex work and in other industries.

The number game

In the late 1990s, the high profile Cadena-Sosa and Paoletti-Lemus cases had American law enforcement on high alert for other human trafficking situations involving immigrants. “From the Northern Mariana Islands to Chicago, Bethesda, Maryland, New York, and other cities, investigators were discovering cases of migrants who had been forced or tricked into jobs that usually involved prostitution, although officials were finding instances of garment sweatshop labor as well.” These alarming news reports raised a fundamental question: What is the scope of human trafficking in the United States? How many of the trafficked victims are children and adolescents?

A study by Richard Estes and the late Neil Weiner on the commercial sexual exploitation of children is often quoted as the authoritative source of the number of minors trafficked into the United States. Indeed, in the early 2000s Estes and Weiner, citing field interviews, estimated that approximately 15,000 children were trafficked to the U.S. annually. They projected that at least half of these youngsters, about 8,500, fall prey to commercial sexual exploitation as part of their trafficking experience. Mia Spangenberg, who studied child trafficking in New York City for ECPAT-USA, put forth the same statistic in her report without questioning its reliability.

These estimates were predicated on the early figures cited in the now-infamous report International Trafficking in Women to the United States: A Contemporary Manifestation of Slavery and Organized Crime by Amy O’Neill Richard. A young analyst at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the time, Richard mentioned in passing that estimates of the trafficking problem in the United States vary given differing definitions of what constitutes trafficking and that research was based on limited case studies. These caveats, however, did not stop her from quoting wide-ranging estimates that put the number of trafficked women and children at 700,000 to two million worldwide and at 45,000 to 50,000 people trafficked annually to the U.S. Thus, the number game had begun.

Richard’s report cited CIA figures that were later disputed. A front-page article in The Washington Post criticized the US Government’s alarming statements about “tidal waves” of trafficked persons entering the country as being based on methodologically flawed estimates. The same criticism about worldwide estimates promulgated by the US Department of State has been expressed in different fora by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the US Department of Justice, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which concluded that statistics provided by the J/TIP office were problematic because of “methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies.” “With few empirical studies available, imagination seems to have filled the gaps in our knowledge,” asserted Sheldon X. Zhang. According to Jay S. Albanese, “The estimates of trafficking, both in the U.S. and worldwide, are not based on actual counts, and the basis for the estimates is not reproducible, so they fluctuate in unexpected ways and cannot be relied on to assess the extent of trafficking.” Following these criticisms, the estimates were downgraded to 17,500 of victims (adults and children) trafficked annually into the United States.

More recently, an unpublished but widely circulated report prepared by Senator Tom Coburn’s office, aptly titled Blind Faith: How Congress is Failing Trafficking Victims, again took issue with flawed estimates of the scope of human trafficking and the exorbitant resources spent on anti-trafficking initiatives. In Lee County, Florida, for example, of 42 potential human trafficking cases referred to the Ant-Trafficking Task Force in 2008, none were confirmed as trafficking cases. During the previous three years, despite many investigations, there was not a single confirmed and certified trafficking case either and only a handful of pre-certified victims. Yet, at the same time Lee County received further $250,000 in federal funds for the Task Force and the Office of Victims of Crime (OVC) provided $260,000.00 to Catholic Charities for comprehensive victims’ services for 18 months (2008-2010). Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) funded victim awareness and services through its “Rescue and Restore” initiatives in the same area, often duplicating efforts with little communication and/or coordination with the task forces in the area. This is but one example of money spent without any results.

Academics invariably begin their discussions of the scope of human trafficking by emphasizing that the number of trafficked persons worldwide—including children—is indeed difficult to measure. Many scholars have discussed the challenges of estimating the scale of human trafficking and the production of reliable statistics, and have subsequently called for improved methodologies to describe the unobserved. These debates notwithstanding, the demand for numbers, any numbers, means “Organizations feel compelled to supply them, lending false precisions and spurious authority to many reports.” And so the number game continues.

The U.S. Federal Government sponsored several studies to improve identification strategies, but so far they have not yielded any significant increase in identified cases. With the Trafficked Victims Protection Act (TVPA) allowing for up to 5,000 special visas for trafficked persons to be issued every year, by the end of 2014, potentially as many as 70,000 individuals could have received T visas. Yet, since the TVPA of 2000 through end of June 2014, 2,906 foreign-born trafficked adults and 622 foreign-born children under the age of 18 have been certified eligible for federally funded services. The total number of identified victims is estimated at 7,700 individuals, including approximately 700 youngsters under the age of 18. Lower-then-expected numbers of identified trafficked persons and prosecuted cases are attributed to several factors: the often-repeated claims regarding the clandestine nature of the trafficking phenomenon; inadequate enforcement of the provisions of the TVPA and limited resources for anti-trafficking efforts; insufficient coordination among governmental agencies; law enforcement agencies with limited experience in dealing with the crime, which makes identification of human trafficking challenging; or the fact that the estimates far exceed the reality and gravity of the situation which, in the absence of reliable data, take on mythical proportions. The latter assertion is not popular at all with anti-trafficking activists who see the small numbers of identified victims as a tip of the iceberg, never the iceberg itself.

Domestic victims: Low-hanging fruit

Members of Congress have been asking where all the money allocated for anti-trafficking activities has gone and why more victims have not been found. The answers have not gone much beyond the explanations invoking the clandestine nature of human trafficking and the resulting difficulties in counting and identifying a hidden population. Despite these excuses, the scramble to produce trafficked persons continued.

The 2008 amendment to the TVPA suddenly opened a new opportunity to indicate the enormity of human trafficking in the United States and boost the number of trafficked children and adolescents to astronomical proportions. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) says that as many as 300,000 young Americans are victimized by some form of human trafficking each year. Various advocates, including the “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” ad campaign, picked up the DOJ statement and began to claim that between 100,000 and 300,000 children are “enslaved and sold for sex in the United States.” What the advocates are forgetting is that the projected numbers of domestic minor sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children are as muddled as the numbers put forth a decade ago about foreign-born victims of human trafficking. Using a respondent driven sampling (RDS), Curtis and colleagues attempted to estimate CSEC prevalence rates in New York City. Despite rigorous methodology, the researchers encountered only a handful of victims, again underscoring the gap between estimates of trafficking and the number of officially identified cases.

And yet, human trafficking, especially domestic minor sex trafficking, continues to draw extensive public attention despite lack of reliable data. The shift of focus on DMST has service providers working with foreign-born survivors of trafficking worried that nobody is looking for foreign-born victims. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline received reports of 9,298 unique cases of human trafficking across the United States in its first five years of operation: 60 percent of these cases involved US citizens. Seventy-three percent of the 1,488 victims who called the NHTRC between 2008 and 2012 were English speakers. Only eight percent of the victims of sex trafficking were foreign nationals; the rest were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

In a recent interview, Walter, a director of a large social service agency in Texas told me that his program is almost exclusively working with victims of domestic minor sex trafficking. “We used to call them the CSEC [Commercially Sexually Exploited Children] kids,” he said, “now they are trafficked victims.” “We no longer get any referrals of foreign-born victims,” he added. Margaret, a director of children’s services at a large agency serving trafficked children in the Mid-Atlantic indicated that in the last few years, foreign-born trafficked children and adolescents have been identified mainly among apprehended unaccompanied children and youth in detention centers. “While the unaccompanied minors need and deserve protection and assistance, identification efforts should not be limited to detention centers,” she added. At a recent meeting with representatives of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I learned that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is also focusing mainly on domestic victims. This piece of news was astounding. Why would immigration authorities be interested in CSEC kids? They are U.S. citizens, and thus outside ICE’s mandate.

The only logical conclusion that can be reached is that it is easier to identify English-speaking, U.S. citizen youth engaged in survival sex or American teen sex workers than foreign-born youths in domestic servitude, exploitative labor, and forced into the sex industry. Whether or not my hypothesis—that it is easier to find domestic victims—is true, it is a fact that domestic victims currently garner the most attention from child advocates, anti-trafficking activists, researchers, and funders. At a conference organized by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in Washington, DC in May 2014, the number of grantees working with and studying domestic victims far outnumbered those interested in foreign-born victims. Among some 80+ participants only three were interested in foreign-born trafficked persons, and I was the only scholar studying foreign-born minors. When I attended similar conferences in early 2000s, 99 percent of the presenters focused on cross-border trafficking of foreign nationals.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not suggesting that domestic youth in forced prostitution are not worthy of advocacy, assistance, and research. I see the point made by some law enforcement representatives who underscore notable changes in the discourse on underage individuals engaged in the commercial sex trade. “Where once they may have been profiled by police as juvenile offenders, they are now, thanks to widespread US attention to human trafficking and the passage of federal and state anti-trafficking legislation, provisionally viewed by local and federal law enforcement agents as potential victims of domestic minor sex trafficking, replete with traumatic pasts and turbulent family histories that authorize state intervention.” However, I continue to question whether commercially sexually exploited minors need be subsumed under the human trafficking label or whether it would be actually more beneficial for this population to have its own label and system of advocacy and care. Was the system set up to protect and assist commercially sexually exploited children insufficient? Couldn’t advocates and those working with homeless youth and runaway adolescents lobby the government to increase funding for these populations? Couldn’t awareness campaigns be mounted to educate law enforcement and the public about the plight of the CSEC kids?

Competition for victimhood

As the anthropologist Denise Brennan wrote, “Although abuses within the sex industry—in particular for young people—are horrific and need attention, one kind of abuse and one kind of victimhood should not be privileged over others.” Indeed, the inclusion of domestic minor sex trafficking victims under the label of human trafficking has pitted U.S. citizen children and adolescents in forced prostitutions against foreign-born young people trafficked to the United States. More importantly, the shift to domestic minor sex trafficking in policy, programming, and funding has had an additional adverse effect: it continues to privilege sex trafficking over trafficking for other forms of labor.

“The dominant anti-trafficking discourse (…) is not evidence-based but grounded in the construction of a particular mythology of trafficking.” This mythology maintains that trafficking affects primarily women and girls. Although activism centered around sexual exploitation has been strongly contested and recent empirical research on human trafficking engages with different manifestations of trafficking for labor exploitation, cases involving women and girls continue to receive the lion’s share of media and research attention to the detriment of paying attention to the trafficking of men and boys. It is important to remember that originally the protocol addressing human trafficking was to be entitled “Trafficking in Women and Children,” omitting men entirely. Only later the phrase “especially women and children” was included. The Smuggling Protocol, on the other hand, “has no such coda and no specific emphasis on gender. Smuggled migrants are assumed to be men seeking work elsewhere without proper documentation, while trafficked persons are assumed to be duped victims, usually women.” This gendered distinction is rooted in stereotypes of women as victims and men as less vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. This ideology not only presents a distorted view of women, but also harms men. Trafficked men are invisible and exploitation of men and boys is not readily recognized and thus much more difficult to address.

Despite the emphasis on trafficking for sexual exploitation, the percentage of foreign-born minors trafficked to the United States for sex has been relatively small. Twenty nine percent of the 114 minors who received eligibility letters from the federal Anti-Trafficking in Persons (ATIP) program in FY 2013 were trafficked for sex. In the same year 68 percent were trafficked for labor and an additional three percent for both labor and sexual exploitation. In FY 2012, 25 percent of the 103 minors who received eligibility letters were trafficked for sex. The percentage was slightly higher in previous fiscal years. In FY 2011, it reached 36 percent; in FY 2010 it was 29 percent, and in FY 2009 38 percent. At the same time, 72 percent, 57 percent, 62 percent, and 56 percent of victims under the age of 18 were trafficked for labor exploitation in FY 2012, FY 2011, FY 2010, and FY 2009, respectively. Three, seven, nine, and six percent of minors were trafficked for both labor and sexual exploitation in these respective years.

The ratio of females to males among the trafficked minors has also changed over the years. Up until FY 2012, the majority of trafficked minors were always girls. In FY 2012, girls constituted 39 percent of the population. In FY 2013 the percentage of girls went up slightly, hovering around 42 percent. However, it was not near the 60 percent, or more, that it had been prior to FY 2012. This statistic alone demystifies the assumption that the majority of children trafficked to the United States are girls.

The gendered (as well as raced, classed, and sexualized) discourse on human trafficking stems from the current disconnect “between the broad legal definition that embraces any worker who experienced force, fraud, or coercion, and the narrow latitude of activist and policy discussions that focuses on sex work.” The centrality of women in the trafficking discourse “maintains the gendered divide around which earlier definitions of trafficking settled and thus reinforces the general, dominant image of trafficking as pertinent only to women’s and girls’ lives.” The concept of gendered inequality continues to guide research, “with situations of poor women and girls becoming the main concern of those involved with anti-trafficking work.”

And finally, the gendered dimension of human trafficking relates to broader issues of women and migration. Despite the continued feminization of migration—half of the world’s migrants are women —there remains a “bias that women and girls need constant male or state protection from harm, and therefore must not be allowed to exercise their right to movement or right to earn a living in a manner they choose.” “Some countries (e.g. Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal) have even prohibited women from migration because of the fear that they will end up in trouble.” This bias often conflates migration with trafficking and contributes to the notion that women and girls are the main victims of trafficking. Critics have argued that anti-trafficking measures have been used not necessarily to protect women from exploitation, but to police, punish, and racialize female migrants. The discourse on trafficked children parallels in many ways the discourse on trafficked women and assumes that “migrants can be neatly divided into moral categories such as adult (strong, active, agent) and child (weak, passive, victim), and smuggled (complicit in a crime against the state) and trafficked (victim of a crime against the person).” These binaries are woefully inadequate and harmful as they continue to question who is more deserving victim.

Concluding remarks

A serious examination of the growing trend to label different types of abuses and labor exploitations as “human trafficking” is warranted. Kempadoo has argued that exaggerated reports of trafficking are quite damaging because they divert “attention away from structural, underlying causes that give rise to exploitation, structural violence, and the coercion of (migrant and non-migrant) workers,” children and adults. In my view, extending the label of “trafficking” to encompass many different phenomena and different populations creates competing claims of victimhood and pities one group of exploited people against another. I contend that there is a need for more dialogue between members of the anti-trafficking movement and worker rights advocates, because much of trafficking in persons boils down to exploitation of different types of workers. Existing critiques, particularly evidence-based ones, of the shortcomings of anti-trafficking policies and victim assistance have to be taken onboard in order to go beyond the prostitution panic and reconcile the gender and age divide. The special needs of commercially sexually exploited citizen children and adolescents need to be addressed—and funded—separately from the experiences and needs of foreign-born children and adolescents who have experienced forced labor, domestic servitude, and were forced into the sex industry. Lumping these two populations together is not serving either group well.

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The Global Catch: Trafficking of Fishermen

Although trafficking continues to capture the imaginations of the global public, we rarely hear about trafficked men. Most of the international focus is on women and children; especially those trafficked for sexual exploitation. This week Twitter is especially busy with tweets about the upcoming Counter Child Trafficking Online Conference. Kevin Bales is personally inviting people to register for what is lauded to be the largest online anti-trafficking summit!

In the course of this field research many stakeholders mentioned trafficking as big problem in Malaysia, including rumors about immigration officials selling deportable asylum seekers to brokers who would place them in forced labor or indentured servitude situations.  However, when pressed to provide more concrete data or even estimates most service providers said they really did not know the scale of the phenomenon as all trafficked persons are housed in government-run shelters and are not assisted by civil society organizations.  Approximately 1,100 women and children are provided shelter in government run houses, the majority of whom are thought to be victims of human trafficking.

Having heard these kinds of reports, we started digging more systematically and finally encountered an organization, Tenaganita, which conducted a fact-finding mission to Tanjung Manis in Sarawak to investigate trafficking of 60 Cambodian fishermen. Some of the “fishermen” have been kidnapped (after being treated to one too many drinks), while others were recruited under false pretenses to work in construction but found themselves forced to work on Thai boats on high seas instead.  Tenaganita learned about them when a couple of the fishermen literally jumped ship and searched for help.  The organization found others in detention centers.  After jumping ship they were recruited to work on rubber plantations only to be deemed illegal migrants and locked up by immigration authorities.

Tenaganita believes that the 60 trafficked fishermen represent a proverbial tip of the iceberg. The Thai fishing industry is dependent on migrant workers, as Thai men are no longer willing to face the dangers of fishing on high seas. Many of the trafficked fishermen were in poor health, not only because they worked hard for two or three years without spending any time on dry land, but also because their diet consisted of fish only; as a result they had vitamin deficiencies and many ailments.

Fishermen who escape or enter Malaysia without documentation are arrested under Section 6(1) of the Immigration Act. The sentence carries affine of RM 10,000 (app. $3,300) or imprisonment of up to five years or both and a mandatory whipping of no more than six strokes of the ‘rotan’ (rattan canes). The question remains: How many more fisherman are working as forced laborers on trawler boats?

The 60 fishermen were lucky, because Tenaganita worked with a Cambodian NGO and the Cambodian Government who ultimately negotiated their release from the Malaysian detention center.

 

As one of the program staff remarked, perhaps before we enjoy the next seafood dish we should think where the prawns come from and who is catching them.

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Methodology: CBPR

CBPR or community-based participatory research has been much lauded by many anthropologists and other social scientists. This model pairs academic researchers and community members; both partners should have active roles in shaping the research’s design and implementation.

In theory, CBPR offers many benefits to academic researchers, the community involved in the research, and individuals in the community. Researchers may benefit from a better understanding of the community, allowing for better research design. The community can help shape research design and ensure that the actual needs of the community are taken into account. CBPR also provides practical advantages: it facilitates access to possible study participants; language barriers are minimized if not eliminated since community co-researchers are bilingual; a balance between emic (insider) and etic (outsider) perspective is maintained.

I have used this approach in many of my research projects, often with terrific results, but never without challenges. In the current study of urban refugees in Kuala Lumpur we have hired several refugee research assistants representing the Chin, Iranian, Sri Lankan, and Somali refugee communities as well as the urban poor. They have been trained in research ethics and ethnographic interviewing. We have debated the use of oral consent forms, protection of human subjects, and confidentiality issues. Many of the RAs seemed to be natural ethnographers: friendly extroverts able to chat casually about many issues, easily developing rapport with their fellow co-researchers and us. Things were looking good!

A week has passed and we are yet to see notes from any interviews! Good training and careful selection do not seem to trump cultural attitudes towards deadlines.  Last night I have posted the following message on my Facebook: How do you motivate people to finish a task if they don’t have any sense of urgency? I received much advice: pay them (I am!), don’t pay them or at least threaten not to (would this be ethical?), provide more training (am considering); shame them on FB (not FB friends with any of them plus as one of my friends wrote: “Shaming never helped anyone to do a better job – value them for what they can do well and have a conversation about what else needs to be done”).

Stay tuned for reports on resolutions…. But never underestimate the difficulties related to CBPR!

 

 

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The plight of the Rohingya

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We spent Saturday afternoon in an apartment complex housing urban poor, including refugees and labor migrants. The 10-story building, eerily reminiscent of the 1970s socialist architecture in my native Poland, is badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. Despite the presence of a cleaning crew sorting recyclables from the adjoining dumpster, garbage was strewn all over and anorexic looking cats were prowling around in search of something to eat. Across the street was a posh, gated and freshly painted condominium. The contrast between these two buildings—sunny yellow with a white trim and nondescript gray with stains that are probably to gross to imagine–was stark!

We came to interview Noor (a pseudonym), a Rohingya community leader, and his Malay wife, Zara (also a pseudonym). Noor presides over an informal association of about 1,500 Rohingya refugees, which he runs from his apartment. Unlike other community leaders we met who focus on providing direct services to their members, Noor focuses mainly on working with the media and the international community to keep the plight of the Rohingyas in the spotlight!

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Burma, are one of the most persecuted communities in the world. Although, they have been living in the state of Arakan since the 8th century, the Rohingyas have been under extreme scrutiny by the Burmese government. They haven’t been recognized as citizens of The Union of Burma since the 1962 coup d’etat by General Ne Win. After decades of oppression and marginalization, the passing of the 1982 Citizenship Law deemed them officially stateless.

Human rights activist estimate that as many as 35,000 Rohingya fled Burma and neighboring Bangladesh by boat between June 2012 and May 2013, most of them hoping to reach Muslim-majority Malaysia. Locally, community leaders indicate that close to 28, 000 Rohingya are currently seeking political asylum status in Malaysia. Approximately, 13,500 Rohingyas have been registered with UNHCR and 14,500 have yet to be registered with UNHCR or with relevant organizations.

With the exception of the most vulnerable individuals—or cases as UNHCR refers to refugees!—the agency has not registered any new Rohingya since December 2005. Noor keeps a thick binder, in which he methodically records the names and contact information of members of his network documenting their presence in KL in the hopes that some day soon UNHCR might again focus on this group of stateless and unwanted people.

Similarly to other refugees, the Rohingya have very few rights in Malaysia. As a result, they are targeted by immigration authorities and Rela, a volunteer corps—akin to the American Minute Men–charged with arresting illegal migrants. In 2006, the Government of Malaysia began registering the Rohingya for IMM13 permits (or social visit passes), which would grant them temporary work status and thus some protection. Due to concerns by the government surrounding the registration process (accusations of corruption!), permit registration has since ended, and the Rohingya, like other Burmese refugees, continue to live without legal status.

Noor gets very agitated as he talks about the uncertain future of his fellow Rohingya and his own family. Although he is married to a Malay woman and has three citizen children—Malaysia being a Muslim country grants citizenship through the mother– his petition to become Malaysian citizen has been denied. Zara nudges Noor to show us the documentation he assembled to support his citizenship application. Noor produces another three-inches thick binder including every imaginable piece of paper the immigration authorities might need to make a decision. Everything, except a passport or travel document! Noor left Burma 22 years ago stateless in possession of no such documents!

His prospects for resettlement in the US are also bleak. Again, he gets very angry recalling that last year the United States resettled some 8,000 Burmese refugees from Malaysia; only three were Rohingya!

We wonder how Noor and Zara and their three small children—two boys ages six and four, and a four-months old baby girl—make ends meet. Zara used to work for a local NGO but with three children under the age of six, including a baby she breast feeds, she cannot afford to work eight hours a day. Her two sons are in a preschool, set up by a Malaysian NGO on the ground floor of the apartment complex, from 8 am till noon. Zara uses that time to help her brother who owns a small store. In exchange, he gives the family food and some money. Avie met the family some years back when they had only one child. They used to live in a much nicer apartment in a different neighborhood, recalls Zara. Looking around her current dwelling—very small, sparsely furnished but clean and well taken care of three rooms—she says: “We have no choice!” The good news is that the neighborhood is safe. The two boys are running around, playing with other kids in the narrow hallways and in the playground, all on their own.

Like many other Rohingya men, Noor has another wife and children in Burma. As a Muslim he is allowed to take a second wife provided he is able to support multiple wives and treat them equally. Noor has not seen his first wife in 22 years and he is certainly in no position to send remittances to his first family. It is his second wife’s family that support him!

 

 

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Syrians in Malaysia

The number of Syrian refugees is on the rise. Reports about Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries abound, but until today I was not aware that refugees from Syria are also arriving in Malaysia. The number of arrivals from Syria is not clear; UNHCR-Malaysia does not mention them on their website. And yet local NGOs are beginning to serve people fleeing the escalating conflict and violence in Syria.

Over the last three months about 60 families from Syria have registered at the Sahabat Support Centre (SSC), a project of the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI). One third of those families are Syrian, almost a third are Palestinian, and another third are Iraqis. Like all other of the roughly 100,000 refugees in Malaysia, they are not entitled to any support from UNHCR until their refugee status has been determined and recognized. Given the current backlog, service providers estimate that the newly arrived refugees might need to wait a year or two for their first instance interview, which is ironic since some of the Iraqis have been approved for resettlement by UNHCR-Damascus. We have learnt of one family who was to travel to the United States within a month. However, their dwellings in Damascus were bombed, they feared for they lives, and fled to Kuala Lumpur. They were told by UNHCR that they would have to begin the whole process anew!

The refugees and service providers are frustrated as they cannot understand why UNHCR-Malaysia does not honor decisions made by their colleagues in Damascus. The family in question brought with them all of their documentation, but somehow this was not enough…

A blog set up by Syrian expats in Malaysia suggests that refugees from Syria arrive daily in Kuala Lumpur. They can get a 90-day visa on arrival which provides a relatively easy access to the country. Islam is a dominant religion in Malaysia which is not without importance either….

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Access to health care

After an all day of training on research ethics and interviewing techniques, our refugee research assistants have been sent to the field to identify and recruit families for household interviews in the Chin and Daai Burmese, Iranian, and Sri Lankan refugee communities as well as among the urban poor. Sadly, we could not find a Rohingya research assistant able to write in English. Therefore, instead of conducting household interviews, we will be holding a couple of focus groups with the Rohingya so not all is lost. Fieldwork never goes as planned and always requires thinking on one’s feet!

Avie and I have also started interviewing stakeholders. The topic du jour was access to health care. Since Malaysia is not a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol and has no legislative or administrative provisions in place for refugee protection, refugees have very few rights. In fact, even refugees registered with UNHCR are treated as illegal and are liable to harassment, detention, fines, corporal punishment in the form of public whipping, and deportation.

The lack of legal recognition of refugees compromises their access to education, legal employment, and health care. With regard to health care, in 2005 the Ministry of Health entered into an agreement with UNHCR to provide UNHCR recognized refugees with a 50 percent discount on fees charged to foreigners seeking health services at government hospitals. The fees refugees are required to pay are equal to payments Malaysian citizens incur when treated at state sponsored hospitals. The Ministry of Health also subsidizes the treatment for HIV and TB.

We haven’t visited any clinics yet, but interviews with IOM and ICMC indicate that health literacy is very limited among refugees living in Kuala Lumpur, preventive care is almost nonexistent, but health care needs are great. Gender-based violence, domestic violence, child abuse, and child marriage are of great concern to service providers and refugee advocates. Resulting physical and emotional health needs are considerable, but few services are available. ICMC, with funding from BPRM, has been providing services to survivors of gender-based violence for the past four years, but like most project-based programming these services are time-limited and long-term sustainability is a challenge.

Stayed tuned for more dispatches from the field…

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Arrived in Kuala Lumpur

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur safely. My first impressions of the city are very positive: big, modern, and clean city with a great diversity of peoples, cultures, and cuisines. My hotel serves several types of breakfasts: continental, American, Malay, Indian, and Chinese reflecting the backgrounds of the hotel guests and locals. The staff is equally diverse, including Burmese and Sri Lankan refugees. Malaysia is not a signatory of the Refugee Convention and refugees do not have the right to work. They do work, however, illegally and for very little money; less than $200 a month. Reportedly their working conditions border on forced labor.

I have reunited with my research partner, Avie, a Georgetown alumna and my former student. We have not seen each other since her graduation from a master’s program in the School of Foreign service in 2008, but did not lack things to talk about, including Avie’s plans to get a Ph.D. in anthropology!

Tomorrow we will be training seven refugee research assistants in research ethics, informed consent and confidentiality issues as well as ethnographic interviews. I usually include some discussion of the historical antecedents of current research ethics requirements in my training. I wonder whether discussions of the Nuremberg Code of 1947 and the Belmont Report of 1979 can be conveyed not only cross-culturally but also generationally.

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On my way to Kuala Lumpur

I leave for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia later today to study urban refugees’ access to education, healthcare, and livelihoods. This project continues ISIM’s engagement with research on urban refugees in Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Irbid, Mafraq, Ramtha and Tripoli. I am looking forward to this fieldwork and to a reunion with Avie Azis, who graduated from Georgetown with an MSFS in International Relations in 2008. Stay tuned for our notes from the field.

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