Portland and Kathmandu share a reputation for chilly weather and overcast skies. They also share notoriety for human trafficking.
Hearing that chills me, even in the heated conference where I’m listening to Anuradha Koirala deliver this year’s keynote address at the 4th Annual Northwest Conference Against Trafficking. Koirala founded Maiti Nepal, an organization dedicated to stamping out Nepal’s cross-border sex trade. I’ve driven three hours from Seattle to discover what she and other experts know about buying and selling people for sex and labor.
Trafficking isn’t just a problem for Nepal, India, Cambodia, and the other hot-topic countries a sex tourist might put on his Top-10 list. Teenagers can be bought here at home in less than 30 minutes, like, as one buyer put it in the CNN special Selling the Girl Next Door, “a pizza.”
Runaway and homeless teenagers in the U.S. are at high risk for trafficking, sometimes being scooped up by traffickers within the first 48 hours of leaving home. Teenagers can be picked up from schools, malls, and sometimes even church groups.
Typically, a recruiter establishes a bond with a teenager by offering attention, support, affection, money, and/or drugs. Once a teen’s interests are engaged, the recruiter typically may force the teen to prostitution through threat or intense persuasion. Once they’ve been recruited, teens may stay in school and appear to live a normal life, or they may be installed in a hotel room, or other secure location, to be sold to buyers through word of month or online through sites like backpage.com.
Earlier in the conference, Sarah Collins, mother of Emily Collins, smothered sobs as she explained how her 18-year-old daughter was sold up and down I-5 before she eventually escaped. Emily testified against her traffickers, something most girls aren’t willing to do. Weeks after leaving a Portland courtroom in 2009, she disappeared—investigators believe her traffickers are behind that disappearance.
Exact numbers are hard to confirm but authorities estimate there are hundreds of teens being sexually trafficked up and down the I-5 corridor. Organizations such as Soroptimist, which hosted this year’s conference, and The Bridge, a residential shelter in Seattle, are working to address this issue in our region.
And organizations abroad are trying to do the same. Maiti Nepal estimates that between 5,000 and 10,000 Nepali girls are trafficked into red light districts in Indian cities every year. The circumstances in Nepal are different but many of the things that make children vulnerable—poverty, lack of education, being from a marginalized group or ethnicity—parallel trafficking cases in the US.
In Nepal a recruiter may promise a girl a plum housecleaning job with a chance to learn English, and pay her parents a year’s salary upfront. But instead the girl will be walked across the Nepal-India border to work off her “debt” in an Indian brothel, where five to 50 men a day will buy her. She’ll earn more money if she foregoes condoms. She won’t keep her earnings; she may even lose a kidney to the organ black market, or be cycled through a fake marriage.
She may escape all this, or get a chance to heal from it, if Anuradha Koirala and her team workers have a say. Through Maiti Nepal, Koirala has built a large residential home where rescued girls live communally while learning job skills as they wait weeks or months for their trials to conclude, their children to be returned, or their physical and psychological wounds to heal enough to return to their villages.
But Koirala doesn’t just run a shelter. She’s also figured out how to get police and border patrols invested in her cause and mobilized teams of formerly trafficked girls to set up their own border checkpoints, watching for girls who seem like they might be bound for a brothel. These informal border patrols catch about 20 girls a day at each of 10 border sites. She’d like others to follow her approach, not in Nepal, but everywhere else sex trafficking exacts its tolls.
Sex trafficking is a complex problem and this conference doesn’t mention any easy solutions. But I leave convinced that here in the Pacific Northwest we have a lot to learn about addressing and ending trafficking from a woman like Koirala.
She meets my eyes with an almost-tired, gentle smile when I approach her.
It’s an exhausting endeavor, but, she says, “The girls’ sorrows keep me going every day. My dream is that one day, Maiti Nepal will not exist any longer.”
“Because there won’t be any more trafficking?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, smiling that smile again.