- The Washington Times - Monday, November 21, 2005

Slavery usually conjures up symbols of shackles, whips, iron bars and dark dungeons. Broad-daylight images of baby carriages, mops and buckets or suburban bedrooms don’t usually enter into the involuntary-servitude picture.

However, the helpless face of slavery today is usually that of an ashamed, silent woman or child from a poor, war-torn country who has been kidnapped or coerced to come to the U.S. Usually presented with promises of a better life, she discovers the truth too late, after being forced into captivity in some of the most unsuspecting places in this nation.

Montgomery County is just one of those places ripe for human trafficking in “forced labor, forced prostitution and servile marriage,” said Jeredine Williams, executive director of Migrant and Refugee Cultural Support Inc.

The nonprofit Silver Spring organization, which Ms. Williams founded nine years ago after fleeing war in Sierra Leone, advocates for the rights of immigrant victims ofsex-based crimes. The organization is beginning a “Voice of the Victim” awareness campaign today that includes a toll-free hot line at 800/599-9291 to assist the abused.

Also today, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, Health and Human Services Director Carolyn Colvin and several regional social-service agencies dealing with immigrants and domestic violence are participating in “Stop Human Trafficking Day.” They hope to heighten public awareness of this abominable crime, which affects an estimated 20,000 people each year.

Ms. Williams said that only 1 percent of trafficking cases have been prosecuted nationwide.

“Where are the 99 percent? The campaign seeks to find those who may be concealed in our community, through bilingual advocacy and collaboration with the police,” she said.

Areas with large concentrations of immigrants, such as Montgomery County (25 percent) are particularly susceptible, said Assistant Police Chief Dee Walker. Traffickers usually isolate and hide their victims within existing immigrant communities.

“We have a lot of warning signs,” she said. “We want to get ahead of the problem, or we’re likely to see more.” In the past couple of years, there have been four federal convictions of human-trafficking cases in Montgomery County.

In one case, a young girl was not only a work slave for a Cameroon couple, but she was hired out to clean for others but was paid nothing. Another slave girl was taken to a hotel room and sexually assaulted by her “owner.”

Others have been involved in marriage-fraud schemes to gain “green cards.” Last week, federal authorities made arrests in a prostitution ring that is being investigated further for possible human-trafficking charges.

“That is enough of a signal that [human trafficking] should be nipped in the bud,” Ms. Williams said of what she called “the hidden crime.” The primary aim of her group is to help the victims, to let the victims of human trafficking know that they can break their silence and that help is available to them. They also will provide tips for the public on how to help victims come forward.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) protects victims from arrest, prosecution and deportation while establishing procedures to prosecute traffickers and imposes harsh penalties. If the victims help bring their captors to justice, they are granted asylum and “a safe haven.”

“This government has been giving hefty fines, and we are happy about that,” Ms. Williams said of the penalties for this “cruel criminal violence.” One way the victims’ captors keep them from running away is to hold on to their documentation, if there is any. The victims also are told they must work until they can earn a ticket to return to their home countries.

“The victim’s silence is virtually guaranteed,” Chief Walker said. “They are threatened and blackmailed so they won’t come forward.”

This awareness program, Chief Walker said, will help law-enforcement officers learn to ask the right questions when confronted with situations in which the underlying crime is human trafficking.

A training session, starting at 1:45 p.m., will be held today for service providers and community leaders at the Gilchrest Center for Cultural Diversity, 11319 Elkin St. in Wheaton. Bilingual pocket cards in six languages listing the warning signs that may help the police and the public identify victims will be distributed.

Ms. Williams said one telltale sign of a sex slave is a woman or girl who looks afraid and ashamed, is usually quiet and sometimes shows physical signs of abuse. The victim usually lives with her employer, she is not free to come or go as she pleases, and she does not have access to her paperwork. She often comes from a country where there is a lack of trust in police and speaking back to authorities brings consequences.

“If you see someone who is not comfortable in their own skin,” ask questions, Ms. Williams said. “After she’s told you her story, you can ask questions on the pocket card,” such as where she eats and with whom or where she sleeps or if she is in debt.

“Our mission in this outreach is to tell them they can come out and say the truth,” Ms. Williams said. “Violence that is all over the world knows no race or religion, and the best you can do is help the victims get out.”

Human trafficking is the nice, modern-day label for human bondage. But slavery is still slavery, no matter which designer tag you sew in the seams.

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