Every day on her way to work, Emma Thompson used to pass an innocuous-looking massage parlor a few blocks from her London home. Inside, unbeknownst to the actress, a young woman named Elena was being held as a sex slave.
Taken from her family and smuggled into England, Elena had been through a harrowing ordeal. Her captors lured her with the promise of a plum job as a doctor’s assistant, but the moment she handed over her passport, she became their slave. They beat and starved her into submission, then handed her a wig and a bag of used lingerie and told her she was to work off more than $300,000 in debt. If she went to the authorities, they said, they would kill her.
Thompson described the damage inflicted on a victim of sex slavery as a “psychological Rubik’s cube.”
“We all know slavery should not exist, so why is it that in the 21st century, we’re looking at a new, burgeoning, and pernicious form of slavery?” Thompson asked before a gathering of writers, aid workers, and philanthropists, including Barbara Goldsmith and Elie and Marion Wiesel, on Monday afternoon. She described hearing Elena’s story as “one of those moments in life when something just lifts a veil.”
Thompson has since joined the global fight against human trafficking and forced labor, a vastly overlooked scourge that affects more than 12 million people around the world. While the actress spoke in New York, at a press conference in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released the State Department's 10th annual review of efforts to combat human trafficking. For the first time, this year’s report includes an assessment of the United States.
And that assessment is brutal: Between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year, while prosecutions against their captors number only in the hundreds. Police, government employees, and social-justice workers both domestically and around the world are ill-equipped to recognize victims of trafficking, so scant protections exist. Enslaved sex workers are often treated as willing prostitutes; forced laborers who’ve had their passports stolen are punished as illegal aliens. Apart from scattered prosecutions, many international government agencies are systematically failing to protect these people.
“As this report documents, cases of trafficking of persons are found in our own communities,” Clinton said. “In some cases, foreign workers drawn by the hope of a better life in America are trapped by abusive employers, and there are Americans, unfortunately, who are held in sexual slavery.”
Accompanying Clinton onstage at the event were human-rights activists from around the world who were honored for their efforts against slavery in Hungary, Jordan, and Mauritania, among others.
Brother Xavier Plassat, a French Dominican friar among the honorees who works to highlight slave labor among Brazil's rural poor, noted that such efforts can run up against criminal organizations and corruption.
“As we are denouncing big farmers, we are at risk,” Plassat told The Daily Beast. “I’ve lived under threat of death.”
This year’s trafficking report indicated progress in a number of countries, Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, who oversees the Obama administration’s antislavery policy, told reporters.
Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, has made strides in identifying and prosecuting human traffickers. The Egyptian government passed a law to confront temporary “summer marriages,” which he described as a “thinly veiled cover for prostitution of children.” CdeBaca also addressed some of the more surprising underachievers in the report. Switzerland, despite being one of the richest countries in the world, was ranked as a “Tier 2” nation on trafficking policy, defined as below the minimum standards of American law but working toward compliance. He attributed the ranking to a loophole in Swiss law that allows for legal prostitution by 16- and 17-year-olds, an issue that he said the U.S. was working with the Swiss embassy to address.
CdeBaca emphasized that treating and rehabilitating victims of slavery, many of whom are traumatized and lack any support network outside their captors, is particularly crucial to improving countries’ standing on the issue. In some countries, victims are detained again by the government once discovered, leaving escaped slaves with a difficult choice as to whether to contact the authorities.
Thompson, who is the chairman of the board of trustees of the newly formed Helen Bamber Foundation, which works with survivors of cruelty, described the damage inflicted on a victim of sex slavery as a “psychological Rubik’s cube.” A woman caught up in this black market can make her captors $150,000 a year, she said, but exists as “a refugee from everywhere.” Even once she escaped slavery, Elena wasn’t able to stay with her family, once they learned she’d been a prostitute.
Since her release, Elena has struggled to speak about her experiences. Thompson helped put together a touring exhibit in which victims of human trafficking told their story in seven parts—“That’s how Shakespeare did it, and he wasn’t rubbish,” the actress said—in hopes of “trying to take the lid off this.”
Thompson said she believes telling the stories of these victims will help shine a light on a problem that’s proved infuriatingly difficult to combat. Elena once was asked what her goal was in sharing her experience.
“I want them to know what it’s like, just for five minutes,” she replied.
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.
Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.