An investigative reporter from Canada — who has dedicated his professional life to reporting on the crime of human trafficking around the world — gave the early morning kickoff keynote address at the Aug. 10-11 “Slavery No More” Global Trafficking Conference 2012 in Los Angeles. And the first thing he did was read from the U.S. State Department’s most recent “Trafficking in Persons” annual report about a certain nation where the horrendous practice was prominent and growing:“This country is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children, both local citizens and foreign nationals subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude, and sex trafficking. Trafficking in this country can occur in many industries or markets, including brothels, massage parlors, street prostitution, hotel services, hospitality, agriculture, help and domestic services among others.”After the ominous quote had sunk into the thoughts of more than 400 people and professionals present in the audience at the Skirball Cultural Center, journalist Julian Sher said the country wasn’t Thailand or Nigeria or, in fact, any other Third World country he had visited and reported on. It just happened to be the United States. “What’s so powerful about what we’re trying to do here today is point out the dark mirror for people who don’t want to see what’s in our own back yard — that human trafficking isn’t something that just happens ‘out there,’” he observed. “And sex trafficking isn’t just something that happens to other people or foreign victims. It’s also happening right here in our back yard.”Sher’s opening remarks reflected the first-day’s theme of the annual conference, sponsored by anti-human trafficking groups Slavery No More and the L.A. Metro Task Force on Human Trafficking — the state of human trafficking in the United States today. The first day also featured an address by former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton on “Human Trafficking and Global Politics,” plus panels on “Investigation, Rescue and Prosecution in the United States,” “California SB 657 and the New Risk-Reward in Corporate Responsibility,” “The Victim vs. Criminal Paradigm Shift,” “Victim Aftercare and Remedies in the United States” and “Everyday Abolitionists.”The theme for Aug. 10 was more global. It included panels on “Fighting Human Trafficking in Foreign Lands,” “Government Policy and Political and Economic Leverage” and “Affecting a Culture Fostering Slavery.”Both days of the conference also had personal testimonies from survivors of human trafficking as well as breakout sessions and workshops geared for law enforcement personnel and prosecutors.‘Elephant in room’In a Friday morning session, an FBI special agent assigned to international trafficking pointed out the “elephant in the room.” Tricia Whitehill said that many U.S. citizens, as well as police officers, still didn’t make the distinction between run-of-the-mill prostitutes and sexual trafficking victims who had been forced into the illegal activity. “Even I had to change my attitude about the reality of sex trafficking,” she admitted. Veteran LAPD detective supervisor Dana Harris, assigned to vice-human trafficking, said he’s always asked, “Are these women really being held against their will?” And his response regarding trafficked victims was always the same: “They don’t want to be out there selling themselves.”Harris talked about a “paradigm shift” — from police officers viewing street walkers as simply “bad girls” to individuals kept in the trade by the “prison of their own minds.” He spoke of a case he worked on the previous night of a 14-year-old girl whose gang member pimp, when arrested, confessed, “Society didn’t want her, but I do.” He said for the young victim there were “no bars on her windows, but bars on her mind.” The increased involvement of gangs in human trafficking was brought up by a number of speakers and panelists at the Slavery No More Conference. Journalist Sher talked about the arrest the day before of eight members of the Rolling 60s Crips as being part of a sex-trafficking ring in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Underage high school girls from the Inland Empire were recruited with the promise of earning quick money, but soon found themselves being beaten, raped and locked up to force them to continue their work as prostitutes, while turning their street earnings over to their gang pimps. “What’s interesting about this story — besides that it finally made it to the front page — is again it shows the victims are domestics from the U.S., but also who’s getting into this: gangs,” he pointed out. “The police chief there said gangs were increasingly involved because it’s less dangerous than drugs. “As one FBI agent told me when I was doing research for a book, ‘Sex traffickers are the new drug trade.’ And the drug dealers got smart and realized they could make much more money and spend a lot less chance of getting caught if they got into the sex trafficking business.”Larger picture of evildoingFormer U.N. Ambassador Bolton called human trafficking a “critical issue” and an important part of American foreign policy that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. This really came to his attention in the middle of 2005, when he was named to his post at the United Nations. About the same time, the news story was breaking of U.N. peace keepers being involved in sexually exploiting the very vulnerable people they were assigned to protect. So he proposed to the Security Council that open hearings be conducted on the problems of deploying peace keepers, including what the U.N. was not doing to reign them in. “But there was real opposition,” he said, of even bringing up the subject. Bolton also noted there were currently 500,000 North Koreans “stuck” in China and more escaping from the repressive regime every year, hoping they could somehow make it to Thailand, Burma or other countries in Southeast Asia to gain political asylum. “And 75 to 80 percent of these people trapped in China being women, there’s no doubt that they are being trafficked,” the former ambassador noted. “So I think this is for those who are concerned with international trafficking a prime example of how not just the evil of this slavery in and of itself is, but how it is so often part of a larger picture of evildoing.”In his brief remarks at the conference, Peter White, who founded the Santa Monica-based Slavery No More with his wife Jocelyn, thanked law enforcement personnel, prosecutors, attorneys, medical professionals, consulate representatives, non-government organizations and church staffs for having the courage to try to stop human trafficking. He reported there were 27 million held in slavery worldwide.“It is clearly one of the most challenging evils in the world today,” White said. “Perhaps you were motivated by the dream of freedom, dignity for everyone but especially for the weak, especially for the poor and for the vulnerable. They are beyond brutalization. Even now they wait, hopeless, unless someone has a heart to seek them and come to their rescue.“We applaud you whose work comes at a very high cost,” he went on. “We just want to acknowledge that — the grueling hours and lost time with your family, constant exposure to the revolting and to the horrific, and at times work that is frustrating and can involve grave danger. Then you press on. And that is nothing short of heroic.”Long, tedious workJanice Erickson, a volunteer at the conference, said it was a “process” for her to get involved in Slavery No More. But the more she learned about human trafficking, the more she got to the point where she told herself she couldn’t ignore the pain and suffering of its victims any longer. Now she is trying to motivate others.“Educating the public is long, tedious work,” she said. “You know, there’s not a whole lot of payoff. It’s frustrating. And while it breaks my heart that this is going on, I’m so motivated and feel so passionate about this, I’m inspired. And I’m so grateful to be part of a group of people who are all heroes in this.”For another person who attended the conference, Sister Barbara Jean Lee, modern-day slavery was not just a personal issue. It was also a “natural” cause for her religious congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. Her community and about 17 other congregations belong to the Southern California Partners for Global Justice.“We want to help to abolish slavery, and we have a congregational stance against it,” she told The Tidings. “It’s just a natural issue for women religious today. We would like to work with other religious communities globally.”Through the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, she worked hands-on with survivors, finding them places to live and helping them get back on their feet. She agreed with conference speakers that it was hard work because of the “prison of their minds.” Moreover, many had been trafficked to Southern California alone, leaving their families behind in their native nations. She stressed, too, that many Americans simply refused to believe human trafficking actually exists. But she also felt a paradigm shift was really happening with law enforcement and hoped it will continue and, perhaps, spill over to the general public.Asked what the Church should be doing about human trafficking, Sister Lee remarked, “We are doing something because it’s part of the Catholic social justice teachings. Religious communities like us are working together doing networking and collaborating. We’re all against it, really. This is a human rights issue. And I’m involved because it’s such a heinous crime that I want to do my part.”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0824/slavery/{/gallery}