Monday, January 23, 2012

Human Trafficking: Meeting the Need in San Francisco

Given that human trafficking impacts millions worldwide and thousands right here in the U.S., and that 80% of victims are women and children, there was no question that the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women would get involved.

Sadly, San Francisco has a long history of human trafficking, beginning with the importing of Chinese women to work in brothels during the Gold Rush days and beyond. Thankfully, we also have a history of fighting back. Gum Moon Women’s Residence, a transitional housing program currently funded by the Department, began offering safety to trafficked Chinese women as early as the 1870s.

More recently, and as a catalyst of our ongoing efforts, San Francisco was the site of a national sting in 2005. Operation Gilded Cage uncovered over one hundred Korean women trafficked into our city and forced into prostitution at legal, City-sanctioned massage parlors. The Department was spurred to fund the Asian Anti-Trafficking Collaborative in 2006 to conduct outreach into the Asian community and to raise awareness about this crime. It became evident that our efforts were not complete, and we realized we needed to engage in this issue on a policy level. The one hundred freed Korean women – and the thousands of women, men, and children still enslaved out of sight – demanded it of us.

In 2009, the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women teamed up with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and the Jewish Coalition to End Human Trafficking to host the first ever Community Forum on Human Trafficking in our city. The 2009 Community Forum hosted over 150 advocates engaged in the fight to end human trafficking.

Following the Forum, the San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking (SFCAHT) was quickly formed to raise awareness, strengthen partnerships among members, and monitor trafficking data and legislation. The Collaborative officially launched in January 2010 with a month-long awareness campaign. Over 20 agencies represent a broad array of non-governmental organizations, government agencies, law enforcement leaders, service providers, educators, and community members. The work of the Collaborative is jointly shared between the Department and the Human Rights Commission.

Raising awareness is one of the most pressing needs in the fight against human trafficking. When speaking about human trafficking at public events, the most common reaction is surprise – surprise that it exists at all, surprise that it exists here in the U.S., in California, in San Francisco. If the public does not realize that the crime is occurring, public policy will lag far behind the needs of survivors. Slowly, legislators are proposing new laws to create harsher punishments for perpetrators, and to create a fund for services for survivors.

For example, when California legislators penned the 2005 state law against human trafficking, the fine for perpetrators was a paltry $5,000. As of last year, new legislation allows law enforcement officials to confiscate property, real estate, and cars used in the crime, with proceeds to support local services.

Even so, few agencies exist with the sole mission of serving trafficking survivors. And while expertise exists in the community, to truly develop a holistic, multi-faceted victim-centered response network, we need more resources and training for service providers, law enforcement, and City workers.

The needs of survivors of trafficking are not simple. Trafficking survivors have compounding issues at play that make their stories uniquely challenging. For example, survivors of international trafficking are often controlled through threats to family members in their home countries. Thus, even if they are rescued by law enforcement, they may be unwilling or unable to cooperate in order to protect their loved ones. Victims must make tough decisions about whether they will cooperate with the U.S. Attorney and other law enforcement or be deported back to a country that may or may not be a safe place to return to.

If a survivor elects to remain in the U.S., perhaps through a T visa or some other form of legal relief, she or he must assimilate to a new culture, learn a new language, learn how to navigate a foreign city, and find employment, education, and counseling services, as well as legal support for any immigration or other legal proceedings necessitated by that decision. These can be overwhelming obstacles, and require intensive supportive services for successful healing and integration.

SFCAHT’s Awareness Campaign exists so that people may know that trafficking occurs; as it is only through the outrage and advocacy of everyday citizens that we can pass laws to penalize traffickers and raise funds for survivors. Everyone must take a stand.

For more about the Department on the Status of Women’s work, visit For more about the SF Collaborative Against Human Trafficking, visit