Older Stories: Beyond Immigrant Brothels

by Juhu Thukral on October 2, 2006

At the age of 17, Cathy* came to the United States from Thailand, expecting to work off a debt. As soon as she arrived, though, her traffickers demanded the money. If they weren’t paid, they said, she would have to go into prostitution.

Cathy was able to escape on her own and eventually found a job in a restaurant, but she was stressed about the money that she owed. Threatened by her traffickers, her family in Thailand had gone into hiding.

When I met with Cathy, I told her she might be eligible for assistance as a victim of trafficking given that she had been held against her will, had experienced threats against her family, and had been threatened with forced prostitution. Unfortunately, in order for adults to access benefits and assistance under the anti-trafficking law, they must be willing to cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of their traffickers. I explained to Cathy that I thought she should explore that option, but she refused. She did not see how going to the authorities would help her pay off her debt and she did not think that trying to get legal work was worth it since she already had a job. She also distrusted law enforcement.

At her job at the restaurant, Cathy was also in an exploitative situation, but not in a trafficking or forced labor environment. She worked close to eighty hours per week and received no overtime pay. When I explained that her employer was violating the law and owed her a great deal of money, she explained that she felt safe at this job and, therefore, did not want to take any action.

Cathy moved through many different categories of undocumented migrant worker. She came into the United States as a person who was smuggled; then, she was a trafficked person because she was held against her will and was threatened with forced prostitution; and finally, she became a worker whose labor is exploited but who is not afraid that her employers will harm her.

Government Raids on Brothels

Trafficking in persons is clearly a severe human rights violation, often involving violence and coercion, which demands a response from the U.S. government. In fact, the Bush administration has in recent years made trafficking in persons their signature human rights issue. Unfortunately, the administration focuses on only one industry: the sex industry. Their official position is that all forms of prostitution and a demand for sex work are the driving forces behind this international problem. The focus on sex work also justifies the government’s preferred method of addressing trafficking in persons, which is to prosecute traffickers, rather than to examine the economic and immigration policies that are root causes for human trafficking. People migrate to the United States because they cannot make enough money to support themselves and their families in their home countries, and increased border security means that people will take more chances in dangerous situations in order to enter the United States.

While forced prostitution is obviously a severe human rights violation, it is not the only form of labor into which migrants are trafficked. The attention and allocation of resources to the problem are important in fighting coercive situations for migrant workers, but the anti-prostitution agenda behind it is dangerous for a number of reasons. The focus on prosecution intimidates many trafficked persons from coming forward to seek assistance, and the increased interest in raiding brothels where migrant prostitutes work often leads to negative consequences for migrant sex workers and worsens relationships between immigrant communities and the government.

The focus on prostitution to the exclusion of other industries where trafficking exists, such as agriculture, domestic work, and construction, means that law enforcement has prioritized raiding brothels where migrant sex workers are, in the hopes of rescuing them from this work. While this seems to be a good idea, it is actually more complex than it appears and can have negative consequences for the trafficked persons and for migrant sex workers.

There are two ways that trafficked persons can come forward: via a raid, where they are discovered by law enforcement; or, by escaping on their own and learning about their rights either from a community-based organization or through outreach and education in an immigrant community. Outreach and education into immigrant communities is a critical piece of any anti-trafficking plan. It is a natural form of information sharing within a community and encourages people to know their rights and gives them tools to assert these rights. Because the trafficked person engages with law enforcement on his or her own terms in these situations, he or she is also much more likely to want to cooperate with law enforcement. Many sex workers who have escaped from trafficking situations and have cooperated with law enforcement were helped in their escape by other brothel workers who knew that the coercive situation was wrong and wanted to help them leave those conditions.

Raids, on the other hand, often leave migrant sex workers in immigration detention or jail for months while law enforcement determines who is and is not a victim. While the trafficked persons may be happy to be out of the coercive situation, they are often distressed with the experience of having been arrested and kept in detention and of not being able to work and support their families. Often they are not able to contact their families to let them know where they are. Or they may feel uncomfortable with their families learning that they have been engaging in sex work. These types of raids also create more fear and distrust in immigrant communities, making people less likely to volunteer information or assist people whom they know to be trafficked.

It is critical that as a society, we create safe and confidential places to house people who may have been trafficked, to connect them immediately with attorneys and counselors so that they know what their rights and options are, and to provide them with the opportunity to work and make contact with their families. Furthermore, while of course there are always times when we need criminal justice involvement in trafficking cases, it should not do so at the expense of the welfare of migrant workers. The government’s view that sex work is the driving factor behind trafficking in persons justifies such over reliance on a criminal justice model.

*name changed to protect anonymity

Juhu Thukral Juhu Thukral, Esq. is the Director of the Sex Workers Project (SWP) at the Urban Justice Center in New York City. The SWP engages in legal and policy advocacy for the rights of sex workers. For more information, please see http://www.sexworkersproject.org.

See original at NSRC

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