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Type of document: News
Topic: Trafficking patterns
Geographic descriptors: United States of America
Language: English
Source: www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/features/featuredetail.asp?file=januaryfeatures62006.xml
Date of publication: 08 January 2006
Long Abstract: Few takers for visa plan for trafficking victims

(LAT-WP/ by Anna Gorman)

The single mother, struggling to support two children in Thailand, knew she couldn’t turn down a job offer as a cook in a Thai restaurant. But when Thonglim Khamphiranon arrived at her new post, her boss — described in government documents as the common-law wife of a Thai ambassador — took away her passport, restricted her movements and forced her to work 17 hours a day, she said. She eventually escaped.

Based in part on her testimony, her boss, Supawan Veerapol, was convicted of involuntary servitude and harbouring illegal immigrants. She was sentenced in 2000 to eight years in federal prison. That’s how the T-visa programme is supposed to work. Khamphiranon is one of what government officials believe are thousands of people lured into the United States each year to work as prostitutes or indentured servants. She has been able to stay here under the special visa created by Congress five years ago to encourage trafficking victims to come forward.

But the programme appears to be significantly underused. There are 5,000 T-visas available each year, but fewer than 600 have been issued, with 111 others pending. Officials acknowledge that there is no way to know for sure how many victims are out there. Exploited immigrants rarely report crimes, fearing reprisals against themselves or relatives in their home countries.

“There are probably a lot more cases than what we are seeing,’’ said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bradley J. Schlozman. “But the true breadth of the problem is unknown.’’

Authorities said a lack of public awareness and poor victim outreach efforts also may be contributing to the low number of T-visa recipients.

“We assumed that victims would in large numbers escape the situation that they were in and come forward,’’ said Wade Horn, an assistant secretary with the Department of Health and Human Services. “They didn’t do that.’’

A University of California, Berkeley study last year cited 57 cases of forced labor in California between 1998 and 2003. The majority of the victims were from Thailand and Mexico, forced to work as prostitutes, domestic slaves, farm laborers or sweatshop employees, according to the study.

Hoping to uncover more cases, federal authorities are taking a more active approach by forging partnerships with community organisations, setting up hotlines and training police officers, faith leaders and hospital workers to identify potential victims.

“If more cases aren’t discovered,’’ said Laura Lederer, senior adviser on trafficking for the US State Department, “we will reassess.’’

In Khamphiranon’s case, Veerapol promised her and other Thai women $240 a month to work at her restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, Gulf of Siam. She also offered them a free place to live.

“When I met her in Thailand, she painted such a pretty picture,’’ Khamphiranon said through an interpreter. Khamphiranon said it didn’t take long to realise how miserable the situation was. She worked long hours every day at both the house and the restaurant, and Veerapol cut her pay to $140. She was forbidden to speak to customers, and she had to serve her boss on her knees. At night, she slept on the floor of Veerapol’s home in the Woodland Hills neighborhood.

“She made it clear that she was the master and I was the servant,’’ Khamphiranon said. Veerapol didn’t allow her to read Thai newspapers, go to temple or leave unaccompanied, Khamphiranon said. And she threatened Khamphiranon and her family back in Thailand if she tried to flee. In 1998, Khamphiranon decided she had to take the risk. With the help of a sympathetic Thai family, she escaped and went to the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles. In exchange for her cooperation with law enforcement, she received a T-visa.

To qualify, visa applicants must be victims of a “severe form’’ of trafficking, face “extreme hardship’’ if they were to be deported and be willing to cooperate with reasonable requests from law enforcement in an investigation or prosecution. Those who receive T-visas can live and work in the US for three years and can apply for permanent residency.

But advocates say the requirements for a T-visa are overly restrictive. Victims may not want to work with law enforcement because they are too traumatised, distrust police or fear deportation, they say.

“When they round up women and 50 get deported, that just sends a message to the whole community it’s a crapshoot,’’ said Norma Hotaling, founder of Standing Against Global Exploitation, which works with victims in the San Francisco bay area. As a result, some community-based organizations may not report cases that they know of to authorities. Government officials said a victim’s willingness to work with law enforcement is essential to obtain a T-visa.

“If we are going to abolish modern-day slavery, then we have to put the traffickers out of business,’’ Horn said. “That’s going to demand, unfortunately, the cooperation of the victims.’’

It’s not easy to determine who is a trafficking victim, authorities said. Traffickers often coach victims on what to say, or frighten them into saying nothing.

“We have to convince these people we are on their side,’’ said Dina Romero, assistant special agent in charge at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. For law enforcement, uncovering trafficking cases remains the biggest challenge.

Sometimes victims cannot escape because they are kept in guarded compounds, such as in the case of 71 Thai workers freed from an El Monte, California, sweatshop in 1995. But more often, threats and psychological coercion keep victims from leaving.

“In the rare case, the victims are chained by physical restraints,’’ said Assistant US Attorney Caroline Wittcoff, who prosecutes trafficking cases in Los Angeles. “In trafficking cases, they are chained by their fear.’’

Proving that victims were compelled to work by force, fraud or coercion can be difficult because there often are no eyewitnesses. The crimes are also hard to corroborate because they often occur behind locked doors — in private homes, sweatshops or massage parlors.

Nevertheless, 382 suspects have been charged in trafficking cases nationwide since 1996, according to the US Department of Justice. Since then, 248 people have been convicted. Most of their victims are poor, uneducated and unable to speak English, authorities said.

“The victims are isolated,’’ said Rosa Fregoso, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who represented Khamphiranon. “Where are they going to find out about T-visas?’’

No matter how isolated victims are, they often have some contact with the community. The new outreach efforts depend on that contact.

The Los Angeles Police Department recently received a $450,000 federal grant to train officers on how to identify potential victims and to set up a hot line and public service announcements. A special city commission is also heading an effort to educate building inspectors, firefighters, healthcare workers and other city employees, who may be the first people to encounter victims.

Authorities believe there are many undiscovered cases in Los Angeles, in part because of its proximity to the Mexican border. They also warn that immigrants voluntarily smuggled into the country run the risk of becoming victims of trafficking. Immigrants may agree to work as waitresses, officials said, but then be forced into prostitution. Or they may agree to a smuggling fee, only to discover the debt can never be repaid.

“It’s that deception, combined with the sort of general knowledge that there is better work elsewhere, that makes the victims very vulnerable,’’ said March Bell, senior special counsel for trafficking at the Department of Justice.

“The recruiter is often a world-class salesperson who gains complete trust.’’

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