The Humans Behind Human Trafficking

It’s not often that I cry at work.

I recently visited the Children’s Assessment Center (CAC) in Houston, Texas, a safe haven for sexually abused children and their families, including those affected by sex traffiking. As I walked past the waiting room of the medical clinic I caught a glimpse of a little boy sitting patiently with his feet dangling off the chair. He looked to be about 8 or 9-years-old with scruffy brown hair, round cheeks, and a striped green shirt. He was waiting to be seen by the clinician because that little guy was a victim of sexual assault. After shaking off my initial sense of shock I was overcome by a deep feeling of grief – grief of the reality that vulnerable children are exploited every day in every part of the world, and even here in the United States.

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In conjunction with President Trump’s declaration of January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the  Foreign Press Centers led an international reporting tour on combating human trafficking through prevention, protection, and prosecution. It was as part of this reporting tour that I had the privilege of visiting the CAC.

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Twenty journalists, each from different countries around the world, traveled to Washington, D.C., Houston, TX, and Los Angeles, CA for a two-week tour to learn and report firsthand on the experiences of the United States in its fight against human trafficking. The journalists met with federal, state, and local authorities as well as nongovernmental organizations, private entities, and victim advocates and service providers like the CAC. The wide variety of government agencies involved in combating this crime, including the first Special Advisor to the Mayor on Human Trafficking in Houston, highlighted the importance the United States government places on fighting the scourge of human trafficking.

Our meeting at the CAC began with a briefing from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which described their work pursuing and prosecuting traffickers while simultaneously providing care and treatment for victims of sex trafficking. The local authorities partner with the CAC, whose goal is to promote the complete healing of child victims of sexual abuse and their families.

I planned the CAC’s facilities tour; I did not plan to see the little boy in the striped shirt. Seeing his face brought home the importance that this reporting tour could have in helping prevent further children from becoming victims of sex trafficking. These journalists’ stories could serve as the impetus for others around the world to seek help, or fight, the challenges of all forms of human trafficking.

I found myself misty-eyed a second time during a meeting with Saving Innocence.  Saving Innocence is a nongovernmental organization based in Los Angeles that was created to assist child victims of sex trafficking. We watched a promo video of their team of first responders who receive calls 24/7 and pledge to act within 90 minutes to provide immediate care for young victims of human trafficking. It was a short but powerful video of social justice heroes mobilizing to help the most traumatized and vulnerable.

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Finally, it’s hard not to get a lump in your throat when talking face-to-face with survivors and listening to their horrific accounts of being trafficked. One of the survivors we met with was Ima Matul of Indonesia. Ima is a survivor of domestic servitude who suffered three years of abuse before being rescued and taken to CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking). CAST’s client services programs offer support all along the continuum of a human trafficking survivor’s journey, including: emergency response, counseling and skills training, shelter, legal advocacy and survivor leadership. Ima now works for CAST and was appointed to the first United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking which provides a formal platform for trafficking survivors to advise and make recommendations on federal anti-trafficking policies

The State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP Office) leads the U.S. global engagement on this important issue. With this reporting tour, the Foreign Press Centers, working hand in hand with the TIP Office, sought to educate and inform the 20 correspondents on U.S. efforts to fight this global crime. By highlighting U.S. efforts through the triple lens of prevention of trafficking, protection of victims, and prosecution of traffickers, the program showed to the world how our government and non-government network of agencies seeks to work hand-in-hand to combat human trafficking. But no single government can fight this problem alone. It takes a global response, and requires the investment of significant resources and collaboration with NGOs, the private sector, the public, and – importantly – with survivors of this crime.

Melissa Waheibi, Deputy Director of the New York Foreign Press Center, part of the Bureau of Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.