Local activists work to end R.I. human trafficking

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Human trafficking isn’t just a problem for the developing world – it’s an issue gaining attention here in Rhode Island. As local interest in anti-trafficking activism grows, two coalitions are now fighting to raise awareness and lobby for legislation – the recently formed Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking and Brown’s chapter of Campus Coalition Against Trafficking.

According to its Web site, the Rhode Island Coalition comprises about 30 people representing organizations that include the office of Providence Mayor David Cicilline ’83, Progresso Latino, Rhode Island National Organization of Women and Polaris Project Rhode Island.

The federal government has passed anti-trafficking legislation in the past six years, but a September report by the Department of Justice recommended that states adopt their own anti-trafficking laws. Members of the Rhode Island Coalition have taken the issue to heart.

“We’re just a group of concerned people dealing with human trafficking,” said Herald Opinions Columnist Zachary Townsend ’08, co-chair of the Rhode Island coalition and one of its few student members. “We want to get legislation passed … and we also want to educate Rhode Islanders.”

Polaris, one of the groups represented in the Rhode Island Coalition, was founded in 2002 by Katherine Chon ’02 and Derek Ellerman ’02 and is an international organization that opposes human trafficking. The group drafted anti-trafficking legislation that is now being introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly, said Ruth Wartenberg, a social worker and the Rhode Island Coalition’s public education committee chair.

In collaboration with FAIR Fund, which connects young women with civic activism, Polaris launched CCAT to encourage college students nationwide to help fight trafficking. Olga Koshevaya ’08, who worked for Polaris Project in Washington, D.C., last summer, started a chapter of Polaris Project’s campus coalition last semester at Brown.

CCAT wants to raise awareness but also wants students to be engaged in fighting trafficking. “We don’t want (students) to think this is just another issue and there’s nothing they can do to help,” Koshevaya said.

“We’re collaborating with (the Vietnamese Student Association) and Amnesty (International), and we’re sharing members,” Koshevaya added. “CCAT is … recruiting constantly and trying to spread the word because we need students for a grassroots effort.”

There is also a Rhode Island chapter of Polaris Project, led by co-coordinators Townsend and Carrie Lutjens ’08. The group focuses on legislation and policy work and is represented at CCAT meetings by Townsend, Koshevaya said.

Koshevaya said she wants the group to host speakers and collaborate with the Rhode Island Coalition.

Currently, the Rhode Island Coalition is focusing on lobbying for the passage of new anti-trafficking legislation. Sen. Rhoda Perry P’91, D-Dist. 3, and Rep. Joanne Giannini, D-Dist. 7, have introduced the bill in the General Assembly. Giannini introduced an anti-trafficking bill last year in the House, where it was passed but did not make it through the Senate. The new bill is much more comprehensive than last year’s and “addresses a lot of individual concerns,” Townsend said.

The bill includes legal protection for victims of human traffickers and the formation of a state task force to help enforce the legislation and to conduct research on the issue, Wartenberg said.

Prostitution is currently legal indoors in Rhode Island due to a legal loophole, but most women in brothels are not working under their own free will and are victims of trafficking, she said, adding that these women are often shuttled around the East Coast, work in very crowded conditions and are threatened or beaten. When brothels are raided, these women sometimes “don’t even know what city they’re in,” Wartenberg said.

But the coalition’s fight against human trafficking doesn’t just focus on sex workers or individuals who are forcefully transferred around the country.

“Trafficking is a misnomer – you don’t have to transfer someone,” Wartenberg said. “Anyone who profits from exploiting people” is trafficking, she added.

Wartenberg stressed that spreading awareness of human trafficking is just as important as passing new legislation.

“It’s possible that the legislation could pass no problem. But what we really want to do is to create a moral outcry,” Wartenberg said.