‘Hear victims, treat the whole problem,’ human trafficking conference told

.- Human trafficking survivors shared their stories of abuse and oppression before an audience on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, kicking off a day of education and advocacy in the U.S. Congress.

Experts, members of Congress, and trafficking victims spoke at a Capitol Hill conference on human trafficking held on June 26. The National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd co-hosted the event, along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the DC Baptist Convention.

“I cannot talk about human trafficking without saying ‘modern-day slavery’. Because when I think about my situation, it was a form of modern-day slavery,” said Evelyn Chumbow, speaker with Survivors of Slavery and a survivor of labor trafficking. 

Chumbow emphasized the importance of not separating sex trafficking from labor trafficking when discussing the problems. “One thing I hate is separation. I hate to separate the issue of sex and labor [trafficking],” she said, because “if you’re going to address the issue, address the whole issue.”  

There are an estimated 40.3 million human trafficking victims worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization; the trafficking industry is estimated to be around $150 billion.

The lack of investigation and prosecution of labor trafficking in the United States is a significant problem, said Hilary Chester, PhD, Associate Director of the Anti-Trafficking Program for United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

While “we do have relatively robust laws” against trafficking, she said, pointing to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), “what’s missing right now is accountability.”

This creates a system of impunity where “there is no consequence for exploiting a worker,” whether it be in a small business, agriculture, or a hotel chain. “There really isn’t much risk for them,” Chester said.

Sister Winifred Doherty, RGS, the United Nations Representative for the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, said there is a common thread running through global systems of exploitation.

“Laudato Si, as I Iook on it and reflect on it, connects the dots,” she said, referencing Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical. Doherty said the Pope has frequently drawn attention to how economies built towards the pursuit of profit rather than respect for human dignity lead to a market culture based on exploitation.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Missouri) also spoke at the conference about her service as a U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg, during which time she helped to draft the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, and which first exposed her to human trafficking to Europe through the Balkans.

“Then I came home to my own suburban community in St. Louis County,” she said, seeing that trafficking was also “hiding in plain sight in the United States of America.”

In her testimony before trafficking experts and other audience members, Chumbow told of how she wanted to travel to America from Cameroon for opportunity, and at nine years old she came to the U.S. Unbeknownst to her, her uncle had sold her for $1,000 and she was taken to a family home in Maryland where other trafficking victims were put to work cooking and cleaning. 

Chumbow said was promised education and opportunities. “I thought I was coming to America to go to school, to be a lawyer.” “I remember my trafficker’s mother–my uncle was sitting right there–and the mother asked ‘is she old enough for the job?’ I’m thinking, ‘what job?’”

“She turned me around, she opened my mouth, she looked at me to see if I was strong enough to do whatever job I was coming to America to do. Obviously, to the mother, I passed the test,” said Chumbow. 

Her illegal entry into the U.S. and her exploitation were not coincidental, she explained. 

“You cannot talk about immigration without talking about trafficking,” she said, both “go hand in hand.” Chumbow was also sexually assaulted during her time of slavery. 

Then she escaped the home, and went to a Catholic church. She told the priest her story, and he asked her what she wanted to do. Chumbow answered that she wished to return home or go to school. However, she did not have the legal documents that she needed for employment or education. She was able to obtain fake documents to work at Taco Bell.

After spending time later in foster care, during which she says she was nearly recruited for sex trafficking but was able to recognize the threat, she eventually obtained her GED and Bachelor’s degree. She now works at the law firm Baker McKenzie. 

“Healing is a process. I’m 33 years old, I’m still struggling,” Chumbow said.

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