By Linda Bloom
When Maria, an Armenian citizen, ended up in Dubai, she resisted attempts by her traffickers to force her into prostitution.
In retaliation, they threw her off the top of a three-story building.
Maria survived the fall, eventually escaped her captors and was repatriated to Armenia, where police referred her to the Anti-Human Trafficking Project run by the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
To date, the UMCOR project has helped 93 women move on to new lives after becoming entangled in what is considered the second-largest and fastest-growing global criminal enterprise, said Kathryn Paik, UMCOR’s Armenia program officer.
Paik and two staff executives with United Methodist Women, Carol Van Gorp and Susie Johnson, spoke about how United Methodists are addressing the human trafficking problem during a March 28 panel discussion at the offices of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
United Methodist Women and its parent organization, the board’s Women’s Division, have focused on human trafficking for more than a decade and started the current campaign, “The Protection Project,” in 2009.
“Since the campaign, our trafficking team has educated and opened the eyes of over 7,500 people,” said Johnson, who spoke by phone from Washington, where she oversees public policy work for the division.
The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people—by threat, abduction, deception or abuse of power—for the purpose of sexual or labor-related exploitation. Eighty percent of those trafficked are women and girls, and half of all trafficking victims are under the age of 13.
UMCOR was the first nongovernmental organization to work with Armenian authorities in all regions of Armenia to reintegrate trafficking survivors back into society, Paik said.
At UMCOR’s shelter, survivors receive medical services, legal counseling, vocational training and psychosocial support. The length of stay varies by individual case, but about 90 percent of participants have successfully returned to society. “Shelter staff also have ongoing contact with the victims and their families,” Paik said.
But the successes are not without effort. “We have many challenges in Armenia for this program,” she explained. “The greatest is probably economic empowerment.”
Without other viable options for employment, it is difficult to break the cycle of trafficking. And societal changes are needed to address populations vulnerable to trafficking. In Armenia, for example, more than 10,000 “extremely vulnerable” children living in boarding schools and orphanages are often left without a home or social support as they grow older.
So, in addition to the shelter, UMCOR Armenia has established a toll-free anti-trafficking hotline, conducted awareness campaigns through presentations, community outreach and mass media, and advocated for victims’ rights.
In the United States, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000—also called TVPA—increased penalties to traffickers from five years to 20 years to life and mandated the creation of an interagency government task force that meets annually.
The State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons assesses and rates 194 countries each year to show whether problems of trafficking are being addressed. Countries that lag on the issue risk losing funding from the United States. Task forces coordinated by the Department of Justice link federal and local law enforcement officers to pursue traffickers.
The department’s “2010 Trafficking in Persons Report,” released last June, was the first to rank the United States alongside other nations.
On a denomination-wide level, General Conference, the church’s top legislative body, first adopted a resolution calling for the abolition of sex trafficking in 2004. The church also has supported “global efforts to end slavery” since 2000, and has long called for the eradication of abusive child labor.
Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.