October 26th, 2010
By Kristi Oloffson
An unmarked building in Queens will open its doors next month to a handful of women ensnared in the global sex trade, becoming New York City’s first safehouse dedicated to victims of international sex trafficking.
The victims are part of the city’s population of undocumented immigrants, often lured to the country with the promise of jobs and then coerced into prostitution by their smugglers.
The safehouse, which would give victims a stable place to live after they leave prostitution, comes on the heels of other local efforts this year to combat sex trafficking. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently launched an anti-trafficking task force, and Gov. David Paterson signed a law allowing sex-trafficking victims to clear convictions from their criminal records, which eases the path to employment and permanent residency.
New York is believed to be a major U.S. entry point for human smugglers, although recent statistics aren’t available. A 2004 State Department report on sex trafficking estimated that 14,500 to 17,500 people are smuggled into the U.S. each year. And as far back as 1999, a Central Intelligence Agency report identified Kennedy International Airport as a gateway for human trafficking.
“[Sexual] slavery today is at a point that we have never seen,” said Faith Huckel (http://www.restorenyc.org/the-issue.php), the founder and executive director of Restore NYC, the group opening the safehouse and currently offering counseling, medical advocacy and legal assistance to sex-trafficking victims in the city.
The safehouse will host women at no cost for up to two years. The precise location of Restore NYC’s safehouse, which opens Nov. 1, will be disclosed only to clients, volunteers, employees and organizations approved to work with the victims. An electronic-security system will be used to monitor the premises.
Restore NYC (http://www.restorenyc.org/) has four full-time employees, including two social workers who speak Korean and Mandarin, a reflection of the source countries of many women smuggled into New York City. Two additional volunteers with Mandarin- and Korean-language skills will live in the house with the women. The nonprofit organization has raised about $645,000 since 2007, according to Ms. Huckel.
The group’s goal is to help its safehouse clients live independently and gain legal status in the U.S.
Since February 2009, Restore NYC says it has worked with some 100 sex-trafficking victims in the city. Its clients’ current living situations are transient and unknown even to case workers, Ms. Huckel said, and women who lack a safe and affordable place to live risk falling back into prostitution. Many sex-trafficking victims stay in shelters, with friends or even in brothels, she said.
“There are very little options in general for these women,” Ms. Huckel said. “When someone is escaping a brothel or coming out of that type of enslavement, they really do need a safe place to go. And then from there, you can sort of start to piece together all the things that they need. But you can’t really do that necessarily if they can’t feel safe.”
Sex trafficking was added to New York City’s penal code in 2008. Since that time the New York Police Department has recorded 32 arrests for the crime, according to Det. Cheryl Crispin. Before the charge was added, suspected traffickers were often charged with promoting prostitution, forcible kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, rape, or solicitation.
The most recent Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, released by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime last year, counts just 172 people convicted for sex trafficking in the U.S. between 2005 and 2007. Data on victims remains hard to reach because “the responsibility for identifying victims is spread among multiple agencies,” according to the report.
The New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services has recorded 29 arrests for sex trafficking in the state from January 2008 through September 2010. Of those, 25 of the arrests have been in New York City.
One of Restore NYC’s clients is a 43-year-old woman from China. In an interview, she described being offered the chance to move to New York City for a job at a restaurant. Upon arrival, however, she said the men who smuggled her into the U.S. demanded $50,000 plus interest, and forced her into prostitution to repay the debt. Her account couldn’t be independently verified.
“I had no idea that I was a victim. If I knew, then I could have found the courage to do something about it,” the woman said through a translator. “I didn’t know any English. I didn’t know the law.”
The woman said she worked as a prostitute for three years. Court records show she was arrested twice—first in July 2006 and again in November 2009—and charged both times with prostitution, a misdemeanor. After her second arrest, she was referred to Restore NYC through a judge at Queens Criminal Court in Kew Gardens. The nonprofit provided counseling required by the Queens district attorney’s office and helped her find an immigration attorney, according to a document submitted to the court by Restore NYC.
Restore NYC said the woman is now working to obtain a visa recognizing her status as a victim of trafficking. According to Restore NYC, the visa would allow her to stay in the U.S. legally and expand her employment options.