Friday, January 11, 2008

LIRS and Trafficking

LIRS and Lutheran Bishops Fight for Law on Human Trafficking
By Gregory Chen, LIRS Director for Legislative Affairs

Annually, more than half a million people are trafficked across international borders throughout the world. Of these, about 17,000 people are trafficked into the United States, including as many as 5,000 who are children trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation. These extremely vulnerable child and adult trafficking victims need services, counseling and shelter as well protection from their traffickers.

This year Congress has the opportunity to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2007 (TVPRA), which would add new provisions that identify and protect child victims of trafficking. Identifying child trafficking victims is exceptionally difficult because many who have survived trafficking are afraid to come forward. Children, especially foreign-born children, are often unaware of the illegality of this abuse or of the laws and services that exist to protect them. In fact, since the passage of the original 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, only about 100 children have been identified for trafficking victim benefits, a number far below the thousands trafficked each year.

Through LIRS’s extensive work serving immigrant and refugee children, we have encountered some of those child trafficking victims and children who are at grave risk of being trafficked. Our service experience has helped clarify the the need for improvements to existing trafficking laws. Two cases serve to illustrate:

* After four Indian children arrived at a U.S. airport, federal officers took them into protective detention. Later a man stepped forward seeking custody of the children. LIRS child specialists conducted an evaluation and assessment of the man’s home and personal profile, finding risk factors indicating that the man could be a trafficker. As a result, federal officials rejected the man’s custody request and likely prevented the children from being trafficked into further abuse and exploitation.

Under current law not all adults who seek custody of children in federal care receive a thorough home study and evaluation. This gap leaves hundreds of children perilously at risk of being delivered into the hands of traffickers. If passed, the TVPRA would improve assessment and evaluation systems so that adults who may endanger a child do not obtain custody.

* In another LIRS case two teenage girls from El Salvador were lured to the United States with the promise of a good job. But traffickers forced them to work in a night club and perform sex work for male customers. The girls were fortunate enough to be picked up by government authorities and placed in a federal foster care program through which they received medical care, counseling and education services.

This highlights the needs for interim relief and services for trafficked children. Current law leaves many children in a state of limbo, unable to receive services while their applications for benefits are pending. The proposed TVPRA would make such children eligible for interim relief.

LIRS supports the following provisions in the TVPRA:

* Emergency interim assistance and improved services for child trafficking victims
* Increased support to UNHCR and other organizations to prevent refugees and internally displaced persons from being exploited
* Expedited family reunification for child trafficking victims in the United States
* Training for federal, state and local law enforcement authorities in identifying and assisting child trafficking victims
* Improved procedures for placing vulnerable unaccompanied immigrant children in appropriate settings and identifying children who have been trafficked or at risk of being trafficked.

In support of the 2007 TVPRA, this fall 10 bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and LIRS President Ralston Deffenbaugh issued a formal statement to Congress calling for swift passage of the bill, especially those provisions that protect children. An interfaith coalition of Jewish, Methodist, Episcopalian, Mennonite and Catholic organizations as well as members of refugee, immigrant and human rights organizations joined LIRS in support of the bill. We were extremely pleased when the House of Representatives passed its version in early December. LIRS urges Congress to enact the TVPRA as quickly as possible to ensure that many more victims of this horrible crime receive protection whether trafficked abroad or to our shores.

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