Protecting Survivors of Human Trafficking in New York

Protecting Survivors of Human Trafficking in New York

Protecting Survivors of Human Trafficking in New York

Language and cultural barriers have left the population of East Asian women who have been trafficked underserved. Crossing those barriers takes dedicated work.


At an undisclosed location in Flushing, Queens, sits the windowless office of the Garden of Hope, an abuse treatment center tending to a largely Chinese-speaking community of women. It counts survivors of domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and teenage dating violence among its attendees, many of them immigrants. Four counselors form the Garden’s human trafficking division, which looks after victims of the underground networks of New York City.

Some of these trafficked women arrived from Chinese-speaking regions only months prior to joining the Garden. Many lack work permits or US legal status, and a majority don’t speak English—putting them at unique risk of exploitation. Fifty-two percent of all Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants settle down in Queens. But resources in the borough are particularly lacking in what a recent division manager at the Garden calls “culturally relevant skills.” Queens is also home to 40 percent of New York City’s Chinese population, and at least 17 percent of its residents primarily speak a Chinese dialect at home.

Treatment at refuges like the Garden involves conversations eased by cultural kinship and familiarity, alongside psychotherapy, psychiatry, and medication. Some survivors are afraid of judgment from their families, but there are also those who are more actively seeking justice, who want to publicly discuss what happened to them. The counselors work to ensure that any such decisions are made in cognizance of potential backlash from their peers and the public.

For undocumented victims, breaking free of traffickers’ clutches can also include applying for a T nonimmigrant visa, which provides temporary legal residence status. But they must testify extensively that they were indeed victims, which can be a distressing ordeal.

Creating a safe environment can be exhausting work for the Garden’s anti-trafficking quartet. On-call crisis intervention makes for irregular hours, and counselors can be called to action outside of their nine-to-five. Does the new client need cash? To move out of state? A place to live? (The Garden can shelter them on-site.)

In 2015, the YWCA of New York hosted a discussion on “Sex and Labor Trafficking in New York City.” Panelist Jimmy Lee, executive director of Restore NYC, a Manhattan-based nonprofit supporting trafficking victims, called Queens “the epicenter for trafficking foreigners on the East Coast.” In 2014, state Senator Jose Peralta similarly described an avenue in a Flushing-adjacent neighborhood as “a mecca of human trafficking.” It’s a persistent issue in New York, which is the fourth-largest trafficking market in the United States.

Last April, the Eastern District of New York charged seven members of a human trafficking ring based in Queens that had been operating for more than two years across 10 states. The ring targeted immigrant women from China who had come to the United States through unacknowledged means. In one woman’s case, a Department of Justice release reported, ring members were instructed to “beat her to death tomorrow. If she dares fight back, beat her more viciously.” Tortured and forced to provide copies of identification, victims were robbed not only of their money but also of their autonomy and personhood. The FBI says more victims are likely still unidentified.

The main challenge is the culture,” says Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, “a misogynistic culture of glamorizing and normalizing the commodification of women.” The New York–based Coalition is one of the oldest international organizations tackling the trade’s atrocities as gender-based violence. (A 2022 International Labor Organization estimate found that 11.8 million women and girls were victims of forced labor.) Like the counselors at the Garden of Hope, the Coalition is a small team of four.

As a founding member of the NGO Equality Now—of which Gloria Steinem is chair emeritus—Bien-Aimé is part of an effort to adapt a comprehensive French law to the state of New York in order to decriminalize and support people in prostitution. (Queens began its decriminalization process in 2021.) “Human trafficking is just a vehicle,” she adds. “People are intimidated by the term. They see it as groups of people locked in some dark basement chained to the radiator—but it really is a train through which exploiters bring their victims to an end destination.” Trafficking is not limited to sex work, though all forms are sometimes conflated into a monolith; people can be brought into any sector, including agriculture and construction. Those coerced into labor services are victims of labor trafficking. Today, the overall problem of trafficking is severe enough to risk overburdening these small organizations.

“We don’t have enough beds in New York,” says Bien-Aimé of the capacity to house survivors. “Services are woefully underfunded.”

That shortage intersects with cultural barriers in a troubling way. A detailed 2016 government directory of resources for human trafficking victims leaves out the Garden of Hope, listing just one other center that offers services in Chinese dialects. When Asians make up the second-largest group of trafficked people—17 percent of the 28 percent whose ethnicity was known—the absence of spaces explicitly meant for Asian survivors leaves urgent needs unmet.

Language barriers are only the most obvious obstacle. Direct communication empowers survivors. Having faced isolation, domination, and physical harm, and needing to describe violations that are frequently intimate in nature, human trafficking survivors benefit from particularly sensitive treatment by aid workers. Not everyone is initially  willing or able to tell a stranger about some of the worst times in their lives. Speaking through an interpreter can fail those people who need personalized support—it can be intimidating, and even exacerbate the already potentially re-traumatizing process of treatment. Building rapport is easier when your counselor can personally understand or even relate to your personal and cultural values.

Before decriminalization began in Queens in 2021, the Garden often identified victims through cases from the intervention court where they had been arrested for prostitution. The Garden’s priority back then was to help get these cases dismissed, because they would affect the workers’ immigration status. It’s now more difficult to determine whether someone is in a dangerous situation, says Sophia Yao, another counselor. Language makes all the difference: Someone could, for example, be forced to rely on their abuser to translate.

Some victims come to the Garden of Hope of their own accord, while others are referred there by the courts or other groups. But everyone who comes to the treatment center is looking for support of some kind. There are also those who became victims of anti-Asian hate crimes at the height of the pandemic; as fears about personal safety grew, the Garden saw an influx of new survivors.

Community is as important for staff as it is for the survivors. A tiny team means a heavier workload when more cases come in, and a heavier emotional burden. “On the way home, I blank out to wind down,” says Yao. “It’s a form of art. We’re not working with a machine we know the parameters for.” Preferring the Garden’s collective approach to private practice, Yao describes team meetings as spaces where counselors can vent frustrations and refine treatment methods. Encouraging natural cross-division collaboration benefits many, but especially clients at the intersection of multiple forms of abuse.

Supervised interns from universities like Columbia help too. Yao herself started as one, shadowing full-time staff, watching their interactions with survivors, and eventually taking on cases of her own.

“Most of my clients have made some kind of impact on me,” says Yao. “They tell me, ‘I feel safe with you. Hearing your voice is soothing for me.’ We’re able to have a connection despite what they went through.” Recalling one client’s case appearing in the news, Yao comments on the threat to clients’ privacy. “It stopped me in my tracks. It was a mixture of shock and concern for what’s going to happen next.” Sensationalized victimhood misses the nuance of lived experience in favor of perspectives enticing to the public. A flashy story may encourage a victim to downplay and dismiss what she has experienced, causing her to feel entirely isolated.

Youngbee Dale is an expert witness for trafficking survivors, who gives testimony in court about potential trafficking threats. One survivor she worked with said her trafficker sent her to a remote area, deliberately isolating her from any other local Asian people. She became sleep-deprived, mentally ill, and malnourished, while maintaining a low weight for sex work. When Dale asked why she didn’t try to escape, she said she didn’t have the energy or space to try.

Dale believes there is a divide between more recent immigrant and multigenerational Asian Americans. For migrant workers who can’t speak English, she says, there is sufficient community to “speak up” for them. Other marginalized communities, she continued, “can speak up in the language, at least.” She attributes the elusiveness of traffickers to activists and law enforcement universally applying anti–domestic trafficking strategies to all cases. Dale argued that we need specific legislation to defend different communities who are disproportionately affected by trafficking rings.

“I don’t think law enforcement is equipped or trained to address the issue,” says Bien-Aimé, who has been working in the field for 30 years. “The cases tend to be very complicated, resource-intensive, and involve complex criminal networks.” The legal system built to subvert these crimes is relatively new, only appearing in the last two decades in the forms of the international Palermo Protocol and the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act—all in spite of the problem’s long, pervasive history. Trafficking is “a biblical concept,” she adds. “This country was built on human trafficking.”

Historical tropes associating Asian women with voluntary sex work generalizes and adds an additional layer of taboo to the issue. When concerning women taken from Asia, Dale explains that the issue is weaved from ties to organized crime overseas. She criticizes a “Westernized view” that glosses over financial causes, as people in poverty are made more vulnerable. Ignoring the hand of criminal groups in the trade makes its enforcers more unreachable.

Last year, the Coalition released a report about the sex buyers who “fuel the global multibillion-dollar commercial sex industry with the money they pay for sexual acts.” Ninety-nine percent of sex buyers are men. The report publicized online reviews and ratings they had left, which not only depicted scenes of sexual violence, but moreover involved “racist fetishization” and “expressions of dehumanization and commodification of women.”

Bien-Aimé says it’s time to turn public focus to the sex buyers. The discourse around sex work, she noted, is still governed by the sense that men have an innate right to sexual access. An unrealistic presumption of a level playing field encourages that view. “You develop this whole false and problematic narrative around consent,” she says. “It’s not just that law enforcement and others rely on these false notions of consent, but also the victim herself—in that it generates tremendous shame and self-blame.”

Locally, it’s small groups like these quartets who fight to diminish the power of traffickers, and who protect and uplift the victims of the trade. While the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women stands guard behind the scenes in policy and law, the Garden of Hope nurtures its survivors in cases that never close. They are drawn back by regular celebratory and communal events, including East and Southeast Asian traditions like the Mid-Autumn Festival. Late last year, families with children played games prepared by Garden staff, as they gifted clients mooncakes and back-to-school supplies and backpacks. Therapy at the Garden of Hope has no timeline: Many of its clients stay with the community that helped heal them, for years after.

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