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>Awareness stirs action on human trafficking

Karen Boone uses her experience as a once-displaced homemaker to identify with, be available to and advocate on behalf of women and youth who experience similar displacement and marginalization.

Human trafficking
Karen Boone

As prevention and education coordinator of the SAFeT Response center at Lutheran Community Services of the Northwest in Spokane, she applies skills gained from 17 years of volunteering and working with nonprofit agencies on community development, racial justice and civic leadership.

Her involvement through work with the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs has introduced her to the issue of human trafficking in and through Spokane and Eastern Washington.

“Lutheran Community Service’s concern arises from our work on sexual assault, because victims of trafficking are often also victims of sexual assault,” said Karen, a naturalized citizen, who was born in Spain, lived in England until she was six and in Jackson, Miss., until she moved to Spokane at the age of 15.

 Her advocacy on human trafficking differs from her advocacy for women and youth, because, as far as she knows, she has no personal contact with people who are trafficked.  She shares information from agency and government reports.

“God has given me gifts to use to benefit the community,” said Karen, a member of Pentecostals of Spokane.

Those gifts include insights from studies at Spokane Community College and Eastern Washington University in government, women’s studies, social work, psychology and communication, and her experience starting over after 10 years of marriage as a displaced homemaker. 

The gifts also include people “God has brought to my door to welcome and care for,” she said.

“It would be hypocritical for me to close my door to someone in need and then advocate on that person’s behalf,” said Karen, who opened her home informally as a temporary safe haven for youth while they resolved issues with their families.

On human trafficking, Lutheran Community Services is a clearinghouse for information.

Karen’s role includes informing social service providers, so they can recognize if anyone they assist with housing, food, employment, health care or other needs might be someone who has been trafficked.

Washington is one of two gateways into the Northwest United States because of people coming from Mexico and its border with Canada.  Most of those trafficked into the United States are from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Karen said Benton, Chelan, Colville, Grant, Lewis, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Stevens, Walla Walla and Yakima are among 18 counties in the state where there is some trafficking.

“Human trafficking involves recruiting, harboring, transporting or selling people, providing or obtaining any person for services involving forced labor or servitude,” she said.  “It’s hard to identify victims or have victims identify themselves as victims. 

“For some, it’s easier to stay trapped, because they and their families are threatened; they lack immigration status and language ability; they are constrained by cultural fears, or they are shamed about being forced into the sex industry.  Most suffer trauma.

“Trafficking, a modern form of slavery and a $9 billion activity of organized crime, affects four million people around the world,” she said.  “The Department of Justice reported that 45,000 people were trafficked into the United States in 1997.”

Violence, threats and coercion maintain forced labor in agriculture, restaurants, sweatshops, domestic work and prostitution.

Some traffickinginvolves international matchmaking.

“Some Russian women come as mail-order brides with the promise of coming to the United States for economic opportunity,” Karen said.  “Although many go back and tell of the violence, it’s not enough to keep others without hope from coming.”

In their countries of origin, trafficking victims may experience oppression, persecution, bonded labor, armed conflict, civil unrest and few opportunities.  People desperate to escape poverty are willing to provide cheap labor and use informal methods of transportation that may infringe on their health, rights and safety.

“As commercial sexual exploitation rises in some countries, it is a factor in some women’s leaving,” she said.  “Washington also exports perpetrators of sexual violence in men going to Thailand and other destinations for sex tourism.”

Karen shared some examples of how trafficking works:

• Joyce signed to attend a dance school to be an entertainer in Seattle.  When she arrived, she was told she had a debt of $4,000 and had to pay $500 a month rent to stay in the broker’s home and could only earn $100 a week dancing at the club.  As her debts mounted, she knew she could earn more by performing sex acts.

• Nadia came planning to go to school. A businessman, Tom, picked her out of a mail-order bride catalogue and sent her a fiancé visa.  He kept her busy 16 hours a day, caring for his children from a previous marriage, so she could not go to school.  He kept her visa in his safety deposit box.  She was afraid of him.

• After Carlos paid a Mexican coyote—immigrant smuggler—to transport him to an apple farm, he was told that the cost of smuggling him was $2,500 and that he would be beaten if he tried to leave.  His work paid for rent and food only.  He worked on other farms, but could not earn enough to leave.

“People are promised one thing in their country, but when they arrive here, terms change.  They realize the person who has their passport and identity papers owns them,” Karen said.

Women, men and children are trafficked.  Women and children are particularly vulnerable, she said, because of gender bias in politics, economics and culture.

“Women, children and poor people are considered of less value.  Unemployment, the feminization of poverty and the lack of access to resources or education also lead to desperation,” she said.  “These are systemic issues.”

Along with the border and ports, other factors conducive to trafficking in Eastern Washington include geographic isolation making social isolation possible, the presence of adult prostitution zones and the presence of transient, unattached males as migrant farm workers and on military bases.

Karen believes the faith community can help increase public awareness with speakers, videos and contacts with social services.  People can volunteer to report ads for mail-order brides. They can also form support groups and advocate for legislation.

Washington is one of the first states to pass a law on trafficking in 2003, after the U.S. Senate passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000.

In addition to Lutheran Community Services, other agencies addressing trafficking include Washington State University, the Spokane County Domestic Violence Consortium, the Sisters of the Holy Names, Refugee Resettlement  and the local Federal Bureau of Investigation.

For information, call 747-8224.