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Hope in the Face of Human Trafficking

Christina Sambor (JD '08) Combats Exploitation in Thailand, Burma, and Washington, D.C.

Each day, I get an email from Google Alerts full of news stories that match the search term "Human Trafficking." The stories come from Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai, and Bangkok, but also from Birmingham, Washington, D.C., and Iowa City.

Christina Sambor with two representatives from the organization Garden of Hope.
Christina Sambor with two representatives from the organization Garden of Hope

I'm always struck by the emails, because they reflect a startling reality that I only began to fully understand a few months ago. It's difficult to think about women imprisoned in a Cambodian brothel half a world away, but to imagine the same thing happening half a block from your favorite coffee shop is astounding. The simple truth is that American citizens and foreign nationals are trafficked within our borders every day.

My work combating commercial sexual exploitation began during the summer of 2007, when I had the opportunity to work in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Tachilek, Burma, with an organization called The Garden of Hope. I applied to join them for the summer after researching human trafficking alongside Professor Naomi Goodno. At my internship, we visited bars along Loi Kroh Road, the red light district that catered to foreign tourists twice a week.

Women lined the front of the pubs, sitting on benches and chatting with passers by, while children walked up and down the street, asking patrons if they would like to buy a rose or crafts that were created in the nearby hill tribe villages. Our team would color with the kids, or sit and talk with the women, who were gracious in helping us with our Thai. Our talks were often interrupted when a western man would walk into the bar, often looking awkward and nervous, and begin chatting with these same sweet women, but with a different purpose in mind.

We returned to Loi Kroh every Tuesday and Friday to visit our friends and share our hope for them: that they would consider options that would release them from the tragedy of selling their bodies to support themselves, and that they might lend an open ear to hearing about a loving God.

Working in Thailand in many ways informed my work that I did in the fall of 2008 with Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that works to combat human trafficking within the United States. While working in Thailand, we came across women who were forced to work in the commercial sex industry, and some that 'chose' to work in prostitution because of economic, social, and religious factors, that became a coercive force of their own.

The stigma that surrounds a person's choice to work in the commercial sex industry can make it difficult to make a case for others to feel sympathy and render assistance. Working for The Garden of Hope and for Polaris Project showed me that the line between voluntary and coerced participation in the commercial sex industry can be much blurrier than one may first assume. The Federal legislation that was passed in 2000, called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (now the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act or TVPRA), recognizes this, and takes into account that many different forms of coercion exist.

The TVPRA defines trafficking in persons as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age;" or "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery."

This definition challenges some of the conventional understanding of what constitutes human trafficking. There are, of course, heinous accounts of young women told that they would come to this country to work as a model or waitress, only to have their identification documents confiscated and be violently forced to work off the debt they incurred by working as a prostitute. But there are also human trafficking cases where a young American girl is seduced by a man that she believes is her boyfriend, but who begins to ask for ''favors' that she might do for other men to help him pay the rent on the apartment they share. Within a matter of weeks or months, those favors become 'turning tricks,' and he becomes her trafficker, or pimp, taking all of the money she is paid and convincing her that she can’t turn back.

Understanding that human trafficking does not require transportation across borders is key to the addressing the variety and extent of the problem of human trafficking within the United States. According to data collected by the Polaris Project, an estimated 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States each year, but an additional 200,000 American children are also deemed to be at high risk for trafficking into the commercial sex industry. Furthermore, sex trafficking victims in the U.S. are, on average, first exploited by their trafficker at the age of 13.

These statistics are all too real. I was shocked at what I saw on a late night ride-along with Polaris Project staff in Washington, D.C., in early 2009. On the ride-along, I discovered that a brothel that was known to have human trafficking victims was operating under the guise of a day spa, and was located right next door to the restaurant I had visited a few weeks earlier.

As we drove around the city, I was shown over ten brothels that were either still in operation, or recently shut down by law enforcement, all within a few miles of the White House. I also watched as a young woman walked the ‘track,’ which by day is the immaculate downtown business district in D.C.

As we rode around, I remember thinking to myself that it really didn’t matter to me how the women working in those places got there, I just wanted to be a part of getting them out.

The reality of human trafficking, both domestically and internationally, can seem hopeless and overwhelming. But I am convinced that we are called to open our eyes to the realities of this world, and refuse to be defeated by the tragedy of what humans can do to one another. There are many stories of redemption and healing, and in by keeping those in mind, we can continue to take these battles on one case at a time. The problem of human trafficking is bigger than any one of us, but not bigger than our hope for each victim’s physical, emotional, and spiritual redemption.

 by Christina Sambor

To learn more visit Pepperdine's Global Justice Program.

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