Human Trafficking A Problem Within U.S. Borders
ALLISON KEYES, host:
I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
Coming up, fabulous classical violinist Regina Carter tells us what's playing in her ear.
But, first, when we hear of child sex trafficking, many of us think of it as something horrible that happens elsewhere in distant nations. But it's not. This month, several human rights organizations in this country met with congressmen to raise awareness about domestic sex trafficking.
Joining us today to talk about the issue are Malika Saada Saar, cofounder of The Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a national organization that supports vulnerable families. She helped organize the briefing in Washington.
Also joining us is a survivor of sex trafficking. We won't reveal her full name to protect her identity. So for the sake of this conversation, we'll call her by her first name, Asia. Asia is also an advocate for the FAIR Fund, an organization focusing on preventing human trafficking. Before we get started, I want to warn parents that much of this discussion will be inappropriate for young ears.
Thanks, ladies, for coming. I appreciate it.
Malika, tell me, who's at risk in the U.S. and why?
Ms. MALIKA SAADA SAAR (Cofounder, Rebecca Project for Human Rights): We know that between 100 to 300,000 children every year are at risk for being sexually exploited. Most of these children are girls, and most of them are between the ages of 11 to 14. Part of what's happened is that the Internet has really fueled an uptick in the trafficking of children, and especially children here in the U.S. So, venues, especially the venue of Craigslist, is really evolving as almost a virtual slave market in which children are bought and sold over the Internet.
What we are seeing is really the unfortunate nexus of children who are neglected, abused, alone, who are preyed upon by pimps. And then the use of the Internet is taken advantage of by these pimps and traffickers. And entities like Craigslist, in their sex ads, allow these children to be bought and sold over the Internet.
So whereas before, individuals might not buy children off the streets because they were afraid of being caught by the police, because of the discretion and the privacy that the Internet allows for - and especially Craigslist - these individuals, these predators, these child abusers can now, at their desk, in the confines of their own home, buy a child off of Craigslist.
KEYES: When you say at risk, what exactly do you mean by that? I mean, just walking down the street? Or do you mean that these young women are being targeted?
Ms. SAAR: All of it. Part of the narrative is that you have girls who are running away from homes that are already abusive, where there's physical and sexual abuse. Or there are girls running away from abusive foster care placements. And these pimps are predators, and they know how to find that girl who looks lost and who looks alone.
So you hear many girls talk about running away from an abusive home, being at a bus station trying to get away and being lured by a pimp who doesn't come across as a pimp, who comes across as a caring man who wants to take care of her.
There are also stories of these individuals who are pimps, who are traffickers, who got to runaway youth shelters and try to prey on the girls at these runaway youth shelters. And then there are also the stories of girls being kidnapped and then...
KEYES: Right off the street.
Ms. SAAR: Right off the street, kidnapped by pimps, by traffickers and then sold through Craigslist or other venues.
One girl that we have worked with was talking about her own journey, and she said that she was coming from an abusive home. She was lured into a car by a man she thought just cared about her who was a pimp. He kidnapped her, kept her at his home, and she started to call his home daddy daycare because of the number of girls who were in the home, who were there to be sold for sex.
KEYES: Asia, can you share your story with us?
ASIA: Yes. Basically, when I first met the guy who would become my pimp, I was actually all the way in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And like Malika stated, I was lost. I lived with my grandmother until I turned 16. And I just started staying back and forth with my siblings. And I just felt like no one cared. It was like - I had gotten my GED. I didn't finish school because I felt like I had no support for college admissions and all that kind of stuff.
And this guy just, like, it was like he knew, like, what he was doing. He stopped me. He bought me something to eat. I hadn't eaten all day. And he kind of, like, told me what he did. He told me he was a pimp within, like, two hours of meeting him. But, like, my grandmother kind of sheltered me and I thought, like, a pimp had, like, a big fur coat with a hat and a cane. And so I'm, like, well, it must be different.
KEYES: So, he didn't look like...
ASIA: No, he didn't look like it. He had, like, I don't even remember what type of car, but it was like nothing special. Just...
KEYES: And he just pulled up next to you as you were walking down the street.
ASIA: Just pulled right up. Like he just knew. But he did use, like, I think some kind of tactic. He was, like, hey, Tiffany. And I'm, like, my name isn't Tiffany. And he was, like, oh, you look like somebody named Tiffany. Like, that was his way of, like, luring me in.
And, like, the next day, like, I was basically working for him. He had another girl who was, like, older than me. She maybe was 27. He was 21. And he was just, like, she's going to be your mentor. And, like, I actually worked for him in Milwaukee. And I saw my family once more. And, like, I didn't tell them what was going on. They thought I was just, like, hanging out with a guy or something.
And he took me to Schaumburg, and I continued to work for him. And, like, when I was on my cycle, my monthly cycle, like, I had to put a sponge in me and continue to have sex. I was posted up on Craigslist every day. I ate once a day. And then, like, he would leave me and the girl, like, in Schaumburg and he went back to Milwaukee.
And another pimp was, like, contacting me through Craigslist. And after, like, after being with him for a week, I couldn't go back home. Like, I've already, like, messed up and went this far in. So how about go to the next person? He seems nicer. He was calling me, offered to bring me to the nation's capital. He wired me money to the Greyhound in downtown Chicago to actually pay for the cab ride, because there was a Western Union and a bus ride all the way to - the Greyhound bus, like, Union Station.
KEYES: Asia, did he come off to you like he was going to protect you? He was -he just...
KEYES: ...offered to care for you?
ASIA: He made it seem like a business, or like a partnership. I was told that it would be like a nine-to-five job. That was his exact words. He was going to take care of me. He might end up marrying me one day - just all these things to make it sound good. And it was stuff that just made me, it made me want to follow through with it because I felt like I never had someone to want to be there with me and for me.
KEYES: So, how long did you live this life?
ASIA: Only for a month, and it drastically changed me, like, that fast. When I got to D.C., I actually found out that I had pelvic inflammatory disease from -part of the sponge didn't come out of me, and it had expanded. And I had two STDs. And actually got arrested in a sting, so I have a criminal record now, which I'm probably going to work on getting it expunged. And it's just like the trauma afterwards.
I have to see a therapist. I'm paranoid sometimes on the train. I don't know if somebody is out to get me. It's hard to interact with society. It's like I have to relearn how to deal with people. And it's hard to just talk to people. It's hard to open up.
KEYES: Malika, what happens to the pimps that attack these children? I mean, when the police come, do they go to jail, as well, or is it just the girls?
Ms. SAAR: It's usually the girls. When you look at the number of girls who are behind bars right now, most of them are there for prostitution. Very, very rarely do the pimps get put behind bars. And even more rarely are the individuals who buy the girls put behind bars. What's hard to explain here is that we have the laws to put these individuals behind bars.
We can charge them with statutory rape, child abuse, child endangerment and trafficking. Unfortunately, there is rarely the political will to prosecute both the pimp and the so-called john for their acts of child abuse.
KEYES: If you're just joining us, I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
We are speaking to Malika Saada Saar, co-founder and president of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights. We're also joined by Asia, a survivor of sex trafficking.
So, you were just explaining that there are laws about this, but the pimps and predators aren't going to jail. How is that possible?
Ms. SAAR: Because I don't think these girls are perceived as victims. If the girls were perceived as victims, then this would be considered a crime. Instead it's the girls who are criminalized for prostitution. If you open up the newspapers to see how the girl is described, she's 16 year olds described as a hooker or a child prostitute.
Now, if that same girl were in India or Thailand, we would describe her as a victim of child abuse, as a victim of rape. But for some reason that same girl who has been raped and coerced is described as a whore, as a hooker, as opposed to a victim.
KEYES: Asia, let me ask you were saying that you were arrested. You have a criminal record now. When the police came, were you able to ask for help? Did you say to them that you were in trouble?
ASIA: I didn't ask for help. I felt overwhelmed. It was like five male cops pointing guns at me, and basically they called me a little whore and I'm just letting him use me. Like, they made me feel bad. So, like, I didn't feel like I could tell them anything, even if I wanted to. But, like, I was stuck with a record.
KEYES: Wow. Asia, what kind of advice do you have for other girls that might be walking down the street and some guy pulls up in a car next to them?
ASIA: It's not safe to get in a car with somebody you don't know, because you might not come back home. It might not be physical first, it can be, like, mental. But, like, when I was young, I used to get in cars with guys, older guys, I thought it was cute. I thought they liked me. And, like, my sisters would ask me, am I crazy? But I just thought they were jealous. But it's, like, this time, like, I never ended up back at home. Just don't get in the car with someone you don't know. Don't talk to strangers, something that's been told to us as children.
KEYES: Right. Malika, once a victim is able to escape from this situation, assuming she's able to do so, what's the first thing she should do?
Ms. SAAR: I wish I could say to that victim that the first thing you should do is try to find help and help will be given to you. Unfortunately, I cannot maintain that promise. We have less than 50 beds for them in the entire country. There are no serious efforts to create safe haven programs for girls who have been trafficked. And while we have those safe haven programs abroad and fund those safe haven programs abroad, we do not have the same effort here in the U.S.
And so even if you have a judge who is well meaning and well intended and wants to help that girl, does not see the girl as a criminal, but as a victim of rape and child abuse. The judge has almost nowhere to put that child. We do not have a thoughtful, deliberate comprehensive response to girls who are being trafficked, other than to put them behind bars.
KEYES: Malika Saada Saar is the president and co-founder of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a national organization that advocates for vulnerable families. We were also joined by Asia, a survivor of sex trafficking. They were kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington.
Thank you ladies, very much.
Ms. SAAR: Thank you.
ASIA: Thank you.
KEYES: By the way, we reached out to Craigslist to see if they wanted to respond to the concerns raised by Malika Saada Saar. CEO Jim Buckmaster recently wrote on The Huffington Post in response to critics that, quote, "any ad on our site and facilitation of such an unspeakable crime is completely unacceptable and we'll continue to work tirelessly with law enforcement to ensure that any such victim receives the assistance they deserve and that anyone committing such a crime is imprisoned."
You could find a link to the article on our Web site. Go to NPR.org, click on Programs and then on TELL ME MORE.