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Activists Want More From Anti-Trafficking Effort

Monday, April 26, 2004

The U.S. is cracking down on the sexual exploitation of children and public awareness of women's sexual enslavement is also growing. Activists see it as a chance to address the economic predicaments of people--often women--who sell themselves.

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The U.S. is cracking down on the sexual exploitation of children and public awareness of women's sexual enslavement is also growing. Activists see it as a chance to address the economic predicaments of people--often women--who sell themselves.
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A victim of sex trafficking

(WOMENSENEWS)--A 43-year-old anesthesiologist from Gainesville, Ga., was arrested earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and charged with traveling to Russia for the purpose of engaging in illegal sexual conduct with a minor.

Gregory Kapordelis is the latest U.S. citizen to be charged with violations of the child sex tourism provisions of the PROTECT Act, signed into law by President Bush in April 2003. The first piece of legislation of its kind, it demands that U.S. citizens who visit foreign countries to have sex with minors be prosecuted under U.S. laws regardless of the laws at the scene of the real or alleged event.

(Kapordelis's attorney, P. Bruce Kirwan, based in Atlanta, said that he did not think the "allegations had any validity," according to local press accounts. He added that "if the Russians knew what they say happened, why did they not stop him there?")

The president's actions have drawn praise from some religious groups pushing to eradicate child pornography and sexual exploitation worldwide. Many grassroots anti-trafficking organizations that have spent decades working toward a similar goal, however, have concerns that the plight of women forced into prostitution will still slip under the global radar.

"The pressure applied on the president by evangelical groups to focus on trafficking and prostitution for women and children has generated some good results," says Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of Equality Now, a New York-based nongovernmental agency that works to promote women's rights in several different countries. "But we see the commercialized global sex trade as much larger, ranging from trafficking and slavery to lap-dances and mail-order brides. The problem won't be solved until it's dealt with at both ends of the spectrum."

Now that ending sexual exploitation of children has been made a priority, says Bien-Aime, the global sex industry as a whole--including the widespread problem of trafficking of women and children--has gotten a lot more press coverage and public awareness of the scope of the problem has grown by leaps and bounds. It's a great time, she thinks, to focus on the economic conditions that force women and children into the sex industry. But those issues have yet to be addressed. There's also growing concern in many activist circles about an apparent disparity in how some of the new anti-exploitation laws are being applied.


Push for Stronger Anti-Trafficking Stance

Most of the five arrests made under the PROTECT Act have been of single individuals heading overseas for the purpose of having sex with minors.

Kapordelis, for example, was arrested after local Russian police in St. Petersburg coordinated with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Moscow, which relayed its information to U.S. officers on the ground in Georgia.

It showcases the enormous effort being expended by law-enforcement agencies around the world to track child pornographers and pedophiles from country to country. It also represents unusual cooperation among agencies not known for collaborating. Police officials throughout Europe, the Americas, and Asia are working together to build international databases on known sex offenders and to stamp out child pornography rings that have flourished on unregulated Web sites.

While lauding those achievements, LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, would like to see a similar effort devoted to ending sex trafficking worldwide, including in the United States.

Three young South Vietnamese girls prepare to confront their day as sex workers in Cambodia, a source, destination and transit country for sex trafficking. Courtesy of Mikel Flamm

Figures about people trafficked are inexact. The U.S. government estimates that between 800,000 and 900,000 people--mostly women and children--are trafficked each year across international borders, with between 18,000 and 20,000 brought into the United States. Many activist and nongovernmental organizations say the actual figures are much higher.

The Bush Administration maintains that it is devoting equal time and attention to the problem of human trafficking, citing the passage of the Anti-Trafficking Law of 2000. President Clinton actually authored that law, but couldn't get it through the Republican-controlled Congress.

In compliance with that new law, the U.S. State Department has created the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which produces an annual report evaluating the efforts of 116 countries to eradicate trafficking. Countries judged noncompliant are put in the "Tier Three" category, which means they will be threatened with economic sanctions if they don't improve crackdown efforts within a year. But no country has been sanctioned to date.

The most recent report, released in June 2003, was much better than others, says Jefferson. Country listings were more thorough, narratives about countries were better organized, information about people who were trafficked into force labor was included and not only international trafficking, but also domestic trafficking was discussed.

But Jefferson criticizes the report as too lenient overall.

"For the third consecutive year, the State Department report fails to give hard figures on the number of people being trafficked. The report gives undue credit for minimal effort and ignores government practices--such as summary deportation and incarceration--that effectively punish trafficking victims," she says.

Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, alerting him to their concerns and suggesting ways to improve future editions of the report. In particular, says Jefferson, activists want to see "facts about how many government agents have been tried, prosecuted and convicted for trafficking-related offenses," because in many countries governments are complicit in allowing sex tourism and exploitation to flourish.


U.S. Military Sex-Tourism Role

Several activists would also like more official attention to the U.S. military's role in the international sex-tourism industry. In September 2003, the International Organization for Migration, a Geneva-based branch of the United Nations, reported that more than 5,000 women--mostly from the Philippines and Russia--are caught up in a prostitution network in South Korea that serves U.S. soldiers.

According to the report, most conservative estimates indicate that hundreds of women arrive in South Korea each month, brought by human traffickers to be used in the local sex industry that operates near military camps throughout South Korea.

"Clearly there is some linkage" between the trafficking of women and the presence of U.S. troops, says Christopher Lom, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration. As the South Korean economy has grown in recent years women have been able to find work outside the sex industry, but to fill the need, other women are trafficked in from poorer nations.

In a statement recently given to NBC's "Dateline," which ran a feature on sexual exploitation of children in Cambodia, Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged the role Americans played in the global sex industry, but did not address the links between U.S. military bases creating a demand.

Ginger Adams Otis is a correspondent for Pacifica Radio and writes frequently for The Village Voice and Newsday.

For more information:

U.S. Department of State--
"Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000:
Trafficking in Persons Report":
http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2003/

Human Rights Watch--
Trafficking:
http://www.hrw.org/women/trafficking.html

Vital Voices Global Partnership--
Anti-Trafficking and Human Rights:
http://www.vitalvoices.org/programs/anti-trafficking/