ORANGE_STAMP_lock logoThis week may bring key votes in Congress responding to the increase in child refugees entering the United States from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Some of these children are fleeing widespread slavery in their home countries. But one of the policy revisions being debated in Washington would repeal protection for child slaves under American law.

Free the Slaves has joined 90 religious, academic and human rights leaders urging Congress and the Obama administration to safeguard runaway slaves by maintaining the procedures established in 2008 for child refugees under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act  (TVPRA).

A letter delivered to key House and Senate committee leaders explains that “amending the TVPRA is not the solution” and notes that discarding portions of America’s groundbreaking anti-trafficking law would be “jeopardizing the lives of children seeking safety in the United States.”

Read the full letter to Congress here.

“Instead of abiding by our international obligations and affording these children proper screening for trafficking and persecution, as well as the opportunity to receive fair and full consideration of their legal claims before an immigration judge, members of Congress appear to propose quickly removing them without access to legal counsel. Removals would follow cursory screenings that have already proven entirely inadequate to identify genuine refugee and trafficking claims among Mexican children.”

The joint letter was authored by the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), a coalition of leading anti-slavery organizations, including FTS.

“We are encouraged that Congress is considering additional funding to both address the conditions of the children as well as provide more rapid consideration of the status of these children and their safe repatriation,” the letter concludes. “These efforts appear to be a better approach than weakening the protections these children deserve by changing the TVPRA.”

If you would like to be heard on protecting child slavery victims, now is the time. You can find the contact information for your U.S. Senators at senate.gov and House member at house.gov. Just type in your zip code in the upper right of the webpages. Then give your elected representatives a call or send them an email to tell them to protect child trafficking victims by protecting the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.

Editor’s Note: Many FTS contributors are embracing The Power of 12 by scheduling automatic monthly donations. This form of support is especially valuable since it helps us know that a regular level of funding is coming, avoiding the risks of boom-and-bust cycles in our ability to maintain a steady fight against slavery throughout the year. We asked one of our key monthly donors, filmmaker Amna Al Nowais, why she has chosen to become an ongoing contributor to FTS.

Filmmaker and FTS supporter Amna Al Nowais

Filmmaker and FTS supporter Amna Al Nowais

How did you learn that slavery still exists? How did you feel at that very moment?

I had some awareness that slavery still existed, but not that there were more people in slavery today­—and treated worse—than during the time that it was actually legal. I first learned this when I saw Lisa Kristine’s TED talk. I felt sickened and overcome with emotions that prompted an urgency to act.

How did those feelings turn to action and a donation to Free the Slaves?

The suffering of an individual not only being stripped of their bodily freedom but also subdued, starved and psychologically altered day after endless day is unimaginable. Making a donation felt like a very natural next step after seeing and hearing what I just had, especially because of how easy it is to do so: on the spot, securely and within a few keystrokes on a laptop.

What do you say when you tell others that slavery still exists?

Slavery is not only still real, it is also a multibillion dollar business, enslaving up to an estimated 30 million people. It seeps into our day-to-day and can be in the supply chain that produces anything from our raw materials to the food on our plates. The numbers seem overwhelming, but we cannot forget that the illegality of slavery makes any practice of it a government matter; and that as consumers we have real leverage to eradicate it. Breakthroughs are a result of dominoes—small and consistent steps.

What do you say to others to inspire them to contribute to Free the Slaves?

As individuals we might feel overwhelmed by the spectrum of eradicating slavery, but Free the Slaves is already freeing thousands of people, as well as preventing further enslavement through region-specific and tried-and-tested methods that are only becoming better and better. All that is left for us as individuals who want to help is to support it. A donation goes a very long way and a regular donation makes it even more sustainable.

Why do you choose to donate to Free the Slaves when there are many other causes to support and organizations fighting slavery?

Over 80 percent of Free the Slaves funds go to programs and services. They are connected to local partner organizations everywhere they work and base every action they take on well thought-out calculations—from prevention to post-rescue. This maximizes their resources and reach and, therefore, most importantly, their sustained effectiveness.

Is there slavery in your shopping cart?

It’s hard for consumers to know which of the products we buy are tainted by slavery. But that could change, if you want it to.

U.S Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) have introduced the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2014 (H.R. 4842). The bipartisan bill requires major U.S. companies to publicly disclose measures they are taking to prevent human trafficking, slavery and child labor in their supply chains.

Now it’s your turn to help. Get your members of Congress to cosponsor this groundbreaking anti-trafficking legislation. Become part of the Business Transparency Campaign by signing their online petition. It’s run by our colleagues at Walk Free.

“Enactment of supply chain transparency legislation will provide consumers with information about companies that are – and are not – taking substantial steps to address slavery. It will also help investors better understand the reputational and other risks of investing in particular companies,” according to the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, a coalition of leading anti-trafficking organizations, including FTS.

If the bill is passed, every consumer will have an opportunity to make educated decisions when shopping.

If you want to make it happen, take action. Now. Click here.

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SERVING UNITED STATES INTERESTS AND VALUES

A Factual Foundation for the Sensible and Humane Treatment

Of Unaccompanied Children at our Borders

 Free the Slaves Policy Brief |July 2014

There was a time in American history when runaway slaves were hunted down and returned to their masters. Free the Slaves believes that the United States should not return to those days. There is no question that some of the unaccompanied Central American children who are currently seeking freedom and safety in the U.S. are fleeing modern-day slavery in their home countries. They deserve a fair hearing and American protection. Removing safeguards afforded to these children by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) amendments of 2008 risks inflicting great harm. It would betray the core values of our country while failing to address the root causes of the increase in child refugees.

Assertions have been made that the TVPRA is to blame for the influx of children fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Some news articles suggest that smugglers are telling parents of at-risk children that the U.S. offers a “free pass” to minors. There has been no substantiation that this is widespread or that the TVPRA is responsible. On its face, it is implausible to assert that the 2008 amendments to a law first passed in 2000 would provoke a child exodus four to five years later. Clearly, there are other, more compelling factors pushing parents to send their children away.

A recent study by the Center for American Progress shows that a surge of violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is actually behind the rise in children fleeing these countries. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world; El Salvador ranks fourth and Guatemala fifth. According to an article in the New York Times, the murder rate of children is up 77 percent in El Salvador compared to a year ago. Children from these three nations are fleeing to countries besides the United States. There has been a seven-fold increase in asylum requests in Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, none of which can be explained by U.S. legislation. It is also telling that refugee children are not coming to the U.S. from the neighboring country of Nicaragua, which is also severely impoverished but has not experienced the same levels of violence as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Scapegoating the TVPRA and rolling back its protections for children as a quick fix will do nothing to solve the real problem behind the spike in children on the move.

The unlikelihood that the TVPRA explains the increase in child refugees can be seen in the following table, which shows the number of unaccompanied children apprehended by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service along the southwest border.

Number of Unaccompanied Children on the Southwest Border

Fiscal Years 2009-2013; Fiscal Year 2014 through June 30

Country

FY09

FY10

FY11

FY12

FY13

FY14

(as of 6/30)

El Salvador

1,221

1,910

1,394

3,314

5,990

13,301

Guatemala

1,115

1,517

1,565

3,835

8,068

14,086

Honduras

968

1,017

964

2,997

6,747

16,546

TOTAL

3,304

4,444

3,923

10,146

20,805

43,933

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The number of unaccompanied children held steady or declined in 2009, 2010 and 2011. To attribute the increase in refugee children to the TVPRA, one would have to believe that Central American traffickers and families missed the passage of the reauthorization amendments in 2008 and suddenly discovered them in 2012.

While the circumstances of each child may vary, it is an undisputed fact that some are fleeing slavery or the risk of enslavement. The U.S. State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report makes clear the magnitude of child trafficking in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras by criminal gangs and others. Youths are forced to engage in prostitution, drug transport, extortion and murder. Children are used as slaves in agriculture, the garment industry, begging, street vending and domestic service. Children who escape these predations must not be returned to their abusers.

Prior to the 2008 reauthorization of the TVPRA, trafficked children could be returned without adequate safeguards against being sent to the very criminals who had preyed upon them. The reauthorization required the U.S. Secretary of State to negotiate treaties with Mexico and Canada to ensure the safe return of children from those countries to appropriate conditions. In the case of other countries, the law simply requires that if an unaccompanied immigrant child is apprehended, reasonable measures be taken to determine if the child was trafficked, to ensure the safe return of the child to the home country if possible, or, if not, to allow the child to apply for asylum.

Free the Slaves believes that these are reasonable provisions. The law should be followed, not changed. The situation regarding each child should be quickly and fairly evaluated. Safe and expeditious repatriation should occur when possible, and protected status in the U.S. should be afforded when that is not possible. Violating this principle would be an act of cruelty without purpose.

The most immediate problem is that the number of children is overwhelming social, administrative and judicial services. But these children can’t simply be thrown over the fence without regard to their welfare and left to the mercies of traffickers and vicious criminal cartels. As a nation, we must live up to our heritage and commit the resources needed to treat the children decently and humanely.

There are appropriate policy and administrative responses. In the near term, infrastructure must be created for their care. Fair and reasonable determinations must be made about their status. Expeditious arrangements must be made for their safe placement, whether in their home countries, the U.S. or a third nation. David Gergen, writing for CNN, has proposed creating safe zones in the affected countries that would be supervised and patrolled by the U.N. An analysis by the Heritage Foundation argues for increased U.S. security assistance to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to re-establish order. Over the longer term, the underlying conditions that are driving terrified children from home must be addressed if the flow of refugees is to be diminished.

We trust that the president and Congress will avoid a hasty, uninformed judgment that may blot the record of our country. The United States has stood against all forms of slavery for generations. Members of both political parties have worked together to create the TVPRA to combat this continuing scourge. The suggestion that this law created a refugee crisis is badly misguided. It should not become the new policy of the U.S. that child slaves and those in imminent danger of slavery at home be expelled as quickly as possible without regard to the consequences. Free the Slaves looks forward to working with people across the political spectrum to devise solutions that are fact-based, humane and effective.


IMG_1230Under the lush green hills and red clay that surround Lubono village, lies gold. It’s the centerpiece of the local economy. Much of the mining here is carried out by what are called “artisanal” miners. This term masks the incredibly difficult and dangerous work in which the miners are engaged.

The approach to mining here has more in common with the 19th century than the 21st. Using hand tools, shafts up to 30 meters deep and 100 meters lateral under the mountain are dug. The miners stop digging when the shaft becomes so deep that the air runs out (there are no compressors). The tunnels have little or no bracing, though they are watched carefully for fissures that signal the potential for a cave-in.  The shafts do not even have ladders; the miners clamber up and down over rocks protruding from the sides.

The earth containing the ore is hauled out and then carried on the backs of the miners down the lengthy paths. The ore is crushed by hand and then washed in streams in search of flakes of gold. I struggled just to walk up and down the mountain; it’s hard to describe how physically grueling the work is in search of tiny amounts of gold that yield a meager living.

IMG_1232The physical dangers are compounded by the risk of slavery. The miners work as small, independent teams of 5 to 10 people. The team leader will borrow money for tools and to pay living expenses until the mine begins to pay off, which doesn’t always happen. The miners fall behind in their obligations, which can lead to debt bondage slavery. The miners cooperative in this small community uncovered 61 cases of debt bondage. Other miners have been coerced into forced labor by thugs, soldiers and militias; 57 such cases were discovered, of which 40 were underage boys.

While the great majority of miners are men, women in the surrounding community are also at risk, with cases of sex slavery and forced marriage reported.

I spoke to men and women who had been victimized by slavery. Laurent borrowed money for tools and food, accumulating a debt of over $1,500. The creditor threatened to take his home, tools and mine, ultimately leading to debt bondage.  Matendo and Faida had both seen their husbands killed in the conflict that roiled eastern Congo and were then forced to marry their brothers-in-law according to local custom.

The leaders of the FTS Congo program – Jack Kahorha and Gabriel Deussom – have been working closely with a local NGO – Justice pour Tous, which means Justice for All – to build resistance to slavery in South Kivu. In Lubono, they have helped galvanize action by the miners cooperative. We met with the leaders of the committee in a clean, brick building they had constructed, with the leadership committee arrayed on wooden benches. The committee of 12 consists of nine men and three women, among whom are the traditional chief, the schoolteacher and the prefect of the local secondary school.

maurice at mineOver the past year, they have carried out an amazing array of educational and organizing activities that are helping to prevent and end slavery in this mining community. These have included community meetings, home visits, public forums, educational sessions for children and youth in schools, small group discussions and training of teachers, clergy and village leaders. They worked with the local community radio station to develop a weekly broadcast on slavery that is heard every Sunday. They developed brochures that have been widely distributed in the surrounding area.

Equally important has been the building of solidarity and joint action to confront slavery. Rather than being atomized, the community is finding protection by working together. To that end, they developed an action plan for identifying, liberating and supporting people who are enslaved. The cooperative intervenes in cases of debt bondage to negotiate the resolution of loans on reasonable terms. A savings and loan program has been started into which miners and their families are contributing small sums every Friday. The savings and loans meetings are also becoming a forum for social action, such as helping children who are out of school or malnourished. At-risk women, such as Matendo and Faida are coming under the committee’s protection.

The work of ending slavery in Lubono is far from finished. It remains an impoverished and at-risk community. But heartening progress in a very difficult context has been achieved. What lies ahead is the long-term, persistent work of strengthening community resources and organization so that the people of Lubono can protect themselves and live free.

Editor’s Note: Learn more about our work in the Congo on the FTS Congo webpage.