Summit mobilizes community to address human trafficking

By Lynette Wilson
Posted May 9, 2016

[Episcopal News Service] Two hundred and forty-four million people – equal to three-quarters of the U.S. population – live outside their birth countries; a figure that includes 20 million refugees and 21 million victims of human trafficking.

On Saturday, May 7, more than 120 people gathered at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Elmhurst, Queens, to hear firsthand testimony from migrant workers who fell victim to human traffickers, survived and have become advocates for other victims. It was the second summit on human trafficking held at the church; the first, held in 2014, led to the creation of the Asiamerica Mission to End Modern Slavery, or AMEMS.

“A lot of trafficking victims don’t know that they’ve been trafficked,” said Bernadette Ellorin, director of AMEMS. “They already know that they’ve been forced into this hardship situation, but they don’t call it trafficking.”

People migrate for different reasons: Syrian refugees are fleeing civil war at home; Iraqis are fleeing violent sectarianism and the Islamic State; and Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans are fleeing gang violence that has turned their countries into some of the most violent in the world.

Other migrants, like those from the Philippines, are leaving home at a rate of 6,000 a day to work in places like Hong Kong, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Of those migrants leaving the Philippines, 70 percent are women who are now favored in a global labor market driven by vacancies in healthcare, childcare and eldercare, and hospitality.

The Episcopal Church’s Office of Asiamerica Ministries, the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns, AMEMS and others sponsored the daylong summit, which aimed to educate and build a broader awareness in the community about labor trafficking; to provide a space to hear firsthand testimony from survivors of human trafficking; and to initiate a community-based support network for trafficking survivors to work alongside AMEMS as advocates and partners.

Participants heard from Daisy Benin, who recently returned to New York where she now works as a nanny for a family on the Upper East Side, after visiting her three children in the Philippines for the first time in over six years; from Janet Basilan, one of a number of teachers trafficked to the United States; Maria Elena Bolocon, who came to the United States on a business visa along with the family she worked for in Italy. In each of the women’s case, they found the contracts they’d entered into whether with the family as in Bolocon’s case or employment agencies in the Philippines, were not upheld.

The women are not alone.

Worldwide, 21 million people, including 11.4 million women and girls, are victims of trafficking. The United States is a major destination country for men, women and children trafficked for the purposes of labor and sexual exploitation. Queens, where Elmhurst is located, is the third most racially diverse county in the United States, with 22.8 percent of its population identifying as Asian-American and 27.5 percent as Latin. The borough sits at the western tip of Long Island and is the port of entry for both air and sea traffic into New York City, making it an entry point for migrants and a hub for human traffickers.

One of the immediate needs that AMEMS provides is legal support for victims. “They need to adjust their status because a lot of them are undocumented or have been forced into undocumented status because of what has happened to them,” said Ellorin.

AMEMS’ mission is to develop a comprehensive resource center – for education and awareness to address human trafficking, and programs to support and empower victims, including legal and immigration assistance, referrals to women’s shelters and advocacy efforts focused on the migrants’ plight. In November 2015, St. James’ received a Vital Presence in New York City grant in support of AMEMS.

During the summit’s afternoon session, participants assembled in small groups for workshops on support and community organizing; wage theft and trafficking; and a rights-based legal clinic. Under U.S. law, victims of human trafficking can apply for non-immigrant T-visas and remain in the country while trafficking violators are investigated and prosecuted. However, as Ellorin explained, trafficking survivors also sometimes fall victim to predatory lawyers who take advantage of their already vulnerable situation.

“Unfortunately, a lot of lawyers see this as a money making opportunity for them and purposely use this as a pretext for extracting more profits from the survivors because they are desperate to adjust their status,” she said, adding that lawyers will intentionally misfile paperwork so it doesn’t get approved, requiring the victim to again pay the filing fee. “We want to provide the legal literacy for them to apply on their own without having to go through a lawyer, to lessen the risk of being exploited.”

The Rev. Fred Vergara, who served as priest-in-charge of St. James’ and is the Episcopal Church’s missioner for Asiamerican Ministries, worked to build awareness both at the church and in the community when he became aware of human trafficking in his church’s community.

Episcopalians nationwide have formed local networks to create awareness of the existence of human trafficking and to look for ways to assist in eradicating it; Episcopalians and Anglicans are working worldwide to build awareness and educate people about human trafficking.

The Episcopal Public Policy Network has a page on its website containing resources for congregations and dioceses, including statistics, graphics, statements and information about proposed legislation.

This past February during a special event at the United Nations aimed at building stronger partnerships to better coordinate efforts to stop human trafficking and eradicate modern slavery through sustainable development, the Episcopal Church, which has consultative status on the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council, presented a statement outlining lessons learned about best practices from its local programs and ministries and thoughts on what needs to be done to intensify the effort against modern slavery.

The statement mentioned, for instance, that some of the best work being done to build awareness of and eradicate human trafficking is at the local level. It specifically mentioned a 21-day bicycle tour to raise awareness in California’s Central Valley; efforts by New Jersey Episcopalians to raise awareness about human trafficking in advance of the 2014 Super Bowl held in that state; Episcopal Church Women’s and Anglican Women’s Empowerment’s efforts to raise awareness through participation in the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, as well as the work of Asiamerica Mission to End Modern Slavery in Queens.

Lynnaia Main, the Episcopal Church’s liaison to the United Nations, attended the summit at St. James’ on May 7 to hear firsthand from survivors so that she’s able to include their perspectives in the U.N. context.

“Theirs are the perspectives that those who make decisions at the United Nations need to hear,” said Main. “This is where the work of justice happens by listening to people who have actually been in those situations and what their needs are and what they think needs to change.”

The U.N. General Assembly will convene a high-level plenary meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants in New York Sept. 19 in advance of its 71st session. The meeting’s aim is to bring countries together behind a more human and coordinated approach to addressing the huge number of refugees and migrants.

— Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for Episcopal New Service.