It might not be something you think about every day, but human trafficking — otherwise known as modern slavery — is a daily reality for more than 25 million people.
According to the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, human trafficking is the fastest growing crime in the world that generates billions upon billions of dollars every year. And it’s not just happening in far-flung foreign countries — it’s going on right here in the United States.
The sex trafficking numbers are staggering and the challenge is overwhelming, but there is one woman who is doing her part to help combat this insidious cycle and her name is Celhia de Lavarene.
In addition to being an author and accomplished journalist who still works as a UN correspondent, Celhia is the founder of Stop Trafficking Of People (S.T.O.P.), an international non-profit organization that provides medical care as well as comprehensive psychological and social services to victims of sex trafficking. She is currently raising funds in order to open a rescue center that will provide even more services to rehabilitate victims and help them reintegrate into society.
Homegirl Talk corresponded with Celhia to learn more about her first-hand experience with criminals, how she forges ahead despite death threats, and why sex trafficking is a worldwide problem we all should care about.
Tell us about your experience on UN missions in Cambodia, South Africa, Eastern Slavonia, Bosnia and beyond. How effective is the UN in helping people around the world?
Each mission was different. In Cambodia, I was part of the Transitional Authority, meaning that we helped the country get back on its feet. As part of the Information Division, I was in charge of a weekly bulletin called Brief/Breve (in English and in French), which provided information on the work the UN came to do to not only the UN people but also to the Permanent Missions to the UN in Cambodia.
I loved my job, which allowed me to meet the Cambodian people and to better understand what they went through during the Khmer Rouge [the regime that was responsible for one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century].
In South Africa in 1994, I was part of the electoral mission and I loved every bit of it as it was the first time that people of color — Black, Indian, Asian — were allowed to vote. During my five months there I met some incredible and interesting people.
In Eastern Slavonia, I had to make sure that the Serbs were treated well by the Croats who did not want the Serbs to remain on their land. It was probably the most demanding and difficult mission I went to. There, I realized that hatred was incredible and that Croats were able to kill just because the neighbor they’ve been living next to for years was Serb, their enemy.
In Bosnia where I went twice, I had to work with the Mothers of Srebrenica, an association of Muslim women who had seen their sons, brothers and fathers killed in front of them by the Serbs. I learned a lot from them, especially as I had to organize the first anniversary of the five years of killing.
I also learned a lot from the Serb women whose families were killed by the Muslims. What I learned from them is that nothing is “black or white.” For the last two missions — Bosnia and Liberia — I was asked to create and to lead a program to fight human trafficking for sexual exploitation.
You created the non-profit called STOP — Stop Trafficking Of People. When did you realize this issue is so important to you?
It was in 2001. The head of the mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jacques Paul Klein, asked me to come back to Bosnia (after having being posted in Srebrenica) to create a program to fight human trafficking for sexual exploitation. At the time, I could not believe that human beings could be bought and sold to serve as sex slaves. What I saw there as well as in Liberia, changed my life forever.
When you find very young girls chained to a radiator, when you see young girls forced to have sex with some 20 men a night, then you realize that you have to do something as the whole world is turning a blind eye on the problem. After seeing that nothing is really done for the victims, I decided to create Stop Trafficking Of People in order to help them — once they are liberated — in the process of reintegration into society and to provide support, education and protection.
You have lived and worked all over the world. Is sex trafficking worse in some countries more than others?
No, it’s a worldwide problem. No country is better than another when it comes to sex trafficking because it is a low-risk, high-profit industry that operates through elaborate international criminal networks all over the world. It is one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world victimizing millions of people and reaping billions in profits.
Many people might think that sex trafficking isn’t as much of a problem here in the United States. Is this true?
No, it’s totally untrue. Let’s be clear, if people — who, by the way, prefer not to face the reality — believe that America is better than other places, they are wrong. Young American girls are trafficked within and outside the US. A lot of them are sent to the the Middle East.
I see a lot of massage parlors with no windows or wrought iron security doors. They do not look like friendly day spas. I often wonder if these places hide sex traffic victims. What do you say about these kinds of places?
In the US, there are a lot of places like that. I don’t work in the US but a lot of organizations do. When one think that those places are not real massage parlors, one should go to the police to signal it. It’s the best thing to do.
How do we know if sex trafficking is happening? Are there any specific clues or signs we should look for?
It’s quite difficult for someone who has no clue in the matter. Especially because you are not going to come across a trafficked victim in the street. Most of them, at least the ones I dealt with, were locked in rooms. However, sometimes you might see a young girl in a plane with a man who is clearly not a family member. Again, it’s not easy for someone who has never worked with the victims.
You deal with very dangerous criminals in your line of work. Have you ever been threatened, attacked or otherwise feel like your life is in danger?
Yes, I have been threatened several time while working in Bosnia. I’ve been attacked in the street, my apartment has been ransacked. In Liberia, a trafficker paid someone to kill me. It’s part of the job. Whether in Bosnia where I worked with some 250 police officers and special forces or in Liberia where I had permanently armed police, I was heavily protected.
Who is most at risk for becoming a sex traffic victim? Is it only young women?
Young and naive young girls, of course. Mostly those living in small villages who did not go to school and are looking for a brighter future.
Traffickers have many ways to attract victims. In some case, traffickers send young and good-looking recruiters to a country with a special task: for the victims to fall in love with them and to marry them.
Once in the country of the recruiters, victims are sent to a place where they become sex slaves. In most of cases, victims are looking for a job to help their family. And I am not talking about minors who are simply kidnapped on their way home from school. Young boys can also be victims.
What keeps you motivated to do this difficult work every day?
No feeling is better than going to sleep thinking that you have saved a human being. Moreover, I believe that buying and selling a human being is one of the most horrible violations of human rights ever.
Any other words of advice for women out there?
Most of the victims are not women but very young girls. To them, I would just say: Don’t believe everything you’re told, especially when it looks too good to be true. If you have a doubt, call us at Stop Trafficking Of People. We will answer any of your questions.
To learn more about this life-saving work, visit the official S.T.O.P. website
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