Annual Najarian Human Rights Lecture Sheds Light on Human Trafficking Epidemic


By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

BOSTON — Tea, hand-woven rugs and prostitutes, on the surface, seem to have very little in common. However, according to speakers at the K. George and Carolann S. Najarian MD Lecture on Human Rights on October 24 at Faneuil Hall, they often involve trafficked persons.

On the demand side, keynote speaker Siddharth Kara explained, consumers want to pay less and less for goods, thus a product made by slave labor, by definition, will be cheaper than one made by a regular workforce. “We as consumers prefer lower prices and capitalize on a low-wage, unregulated market,” he said.

The industries that use slave or trafficked labor include frozen shrimp, tea, coffee, hand-woven carpets, rice, potato, corn, granite and limestone, apparel and sporting goods.

The speakers at the podium by turns scared, horrified and encouraged the audience, speaking about the incredible prevalence of trafficking both near and far.

Kara spoke about his experiences witnessing trafficking both in the US and in far corners of the earth. He suggested that trafficking should be called what it is: slavery. Kara, who has written extensively on the subject, teaches a course on it at Harvard Kennedy School.

Kara linked trafficking, be it for sexual, labor or organ harvesting, to the world economy, saying it was “the dark underbelly of globalization.”

“Slave trading is the same thing as human trafficking. The purpose is the same” as those who enslaved Africans 500 years ago, he noted.

The topics the former investment banker addressed were not easy to listen to but the audience was transfixed. “I will never forget the first trafficked sex slave I met. She was 14. She looked to me like she was already dead,” he said. That incident was 13 years ago and “thousands of miles away. It [the encounter] convinced me that I have to dedicate my life” to exposing and eradicating sex trafficking.

Her story is not unique. Kara said this past summer she met a girl who had been trafficked here in the US from Mexico, promised a cleaning job. Women and girls like her from Mexico as well as Guatemala and other central American countries, have to pay large sums for them, in this case $800, in order to come here. Once they arrive, almost all of their salary is garnered by the traffickers and thus they are in a cycle in which they cannot pay back the traffickers to gain their freedom.

If they don’t cooperate, they are threatened with death or rape. The girl in San Diego told him after her escape that every day she had prayed for release from the hell in which she survived. “I knew God had sent me to hell, but I did not know why,” she had told him.

Kara said that those battling trafficking should learn cooperation techniques from traffickers who link across the world and create networks that are “brutally efficient.”

He then spoke at length about the economics of trafficking, using his background in finance to show how lucrative it is and thus why it is so prevalent.

“There are immense profits and they continue to grow,” he said.

“The early definition of slavery focuses on [the aspect] exercising power over someone because you legally owned them,” he said. In the modern context, he explained, it is still the same. What is not the same, he said, is the price of slaves. Whereas when in the 18th century the price of a slave from Africa was about $5,000, today a trafficked person is worth about $400.

“You get a new slave when you have chewed up the other one,” he said.

There are more than 2.5 billion people who live on $2.50 or less a day. Those are people who often face social instability, bias against the female gender and political unrest. All these factors combined create the ideal condition for traffickers to swoop in, Kara explained.

Kara said there are three steps in the business model of trafficking: acquisition, movement and exploitation. Even when freed, those who have been enslaved often suffer so much because of the stigma of what they have done, that they end up being trafficked again and again.

Children bear a huge brunt of the slave market, be it for sexual or labor purposes.

He showed a photo of young children in Southeast Asia at a loom, weaving a carpet. They work 16-17 hours a day and receive just enough sustenance and rest in order to keep going. Some of the rugs their little hands create are sold at Macy’s or Neiman Marcus, he said.

Similarly, he explained, Bangladesh has become a gigantic exporter of tea, but the people picking the tea leaves are often descendants of tea-leaf pickers from the 1860s imported from India, continuing the cycle of enslavement.

 

Links to Armenians

The program was opened by Dr. Carolann Najarian, who said that trafficking of children or women for sexual purposes was certainly something that some Armenians who died or survived the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey certainly endured.

“It is not an easy subject to think about. It is the heinous form of exploitation, slavery,” said Najarian. “It is slavery in our midst.”

“People have to educate themselves to unmask this monster,” she continued. It is often dangerous work.

She recalled that her father, in whose memory the endowed public program of the Armenian Heritage Foundation, the sponsor of Armenian Heritage Park on the Greenway lecture series was founded, would speak about women who would take poison rather than be forced into a harem or work as sex slaves in Turkey.

She said the subject, therefore, is one that is important to her as  “an Armenian, as a woman and as a citizen of the world.”

Another speaker, Cherie Jimenez, the founder and executive director of the EVA (Education, Vision and Advocacy Center) Project, entranced the audience by her first-person account of living in the world of sexual servitude.

“I was caught up for many years in the industry,” said the petite blonde, shocking many in the audience. “It is an industry built on gender inequality,” with women “reduced to a commodity to be used.”

She said her ultimate goal is to shut down the prostitution industry, but in the meantime, she said, the Swedish model of commitment to gender equality should be followed in the US.

Right here in Boston, she said, there are many vulnerable women who are easily victimized. “There is a culture that creates the image of women and girls as commodities. We should acknowledge prostitution in all its forms,” she said, including pornography.

Speaker Liam Lowney, executive director of the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance, thanked Jimenez for her efforts. “She has been a leader in this.”

He went on to say, “My ‘aha’ moment happened in Cambridge Superior Court,” where a young girl had been arrested as a prostitute in Belmont.

When she was arrested 12 years ago, the young girl was labeled a criminal — a juvenile prostitute — rather than what she was, a trafficked child.

“She was arrested by Belmont police who released her to her ‘uncle,’ who took her to Georgia. She called the Belmont detective from Georgia, who helped bring her back to Massachusetts,” he recalled. She was 16 and because of the detective’s efforts, she had trusted him and thus was able to flee an abusive situation and turn her life around.

“She did not identify herself as a victim. She was funny, smart and determined,” he said, qualities which ultimately helped her reclaim her life, but which did not help her be identified as a victim of trafficking and pimps. “She needed a place to live, education, mental health and a job,” he said. Now, he said, she has received her GED and has two children. “I am truly honored to know her and her success is due to her only,” he said.

Lowney praised the work of then Rep. Peter Koutoujian, calling him the “go-to guy” for victim assistance and Attorney General Martha Coakley for drafting legislation on trafficking.

Incredibly, he said, in Massachusetts it was not a crime to exploit another being for commercial gain. It was a crime that did not exist. Massachusetts was the 47th state in the US to put a trafficking law in its books and passed a law that juveniles should not be prosecuted for prostitution. The law, he said, “gave us a roadmap of what to do next in Massachusetts.”

He went on to say, “This is not a woman’s issue; this is our issue,” to great applause.

Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, who was welcomed warmly by the audience, said as a society “we must promote greater awareness on this issue. To combat trafficking, we must all become educated and remain vigilant.”

Turning to Kara, he thanked him for bearing witness to so many painful sights involving trafficking around the world, in order to shed light on the issue. “It must be something you carry with you,” he said.

Koutoujian paid tribute to Clara Barton, “who right here, in this hall, spoke to help ease the plight of the Armenians.” He segued into the Armenian Heritage Park, saying that the park was “constructed so that people would not forget” the atrocities the Armenians faced in the Ottoman Empire.

Next, quoting Martin Luther King, he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

He said about 27 million people around the world have been trafficked, with 87 percent younger than 25.

“The question is what can we do to combat human trafficking? The first step is we have to identify them,” Koutoujian said.

Signs of trouble he pointed out include an employee that lives with an employer, who when questioned answers in a rote, scripted way.

“Reach out to your legislators,” he urged. “Until 10-12 years ago, no one knew what I was talking about,” he said, with regard to human trafficking.

Kara concurred, urging increased resources to combat trafficking, cleansing the supply chains, protecting the vulnerable and increasing the penalties for those who are convicted of the crime.

The days of slavery, he stressed, are not over. “This is not the case. We all know especially now.” He suggested pointing the light on it, as “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

He added, “You are all becoming agents of change.”

Also present at the event were two persons tasked with helping trafficked persons day or night, Det. Sgt. Dona Gavin of Boston Police and Julie Dahlstrom, director of the Boston University School of Law’s new Human Trafficking Clinic, and managing attorney at Lutheran Social Services.

To report a suspected case of trafficking call 888-373-7888.