When the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in the Washington, D.C., field office got a tip about two women from the Philippines who might have been trafficked, the allegations had an all too familiar ring. They reportedly were working for a Saudi military attaché at a house owned by the Saudi Embassy in an upmarket section of McLean, Virginia. The tipster suggested the women were kept there in conditions that could amount to indentured servitude at best, virtual slavery at worst.
There’s a long record of this kind of abuse by members of the diplomatic corps and employees of international organizations in Washington. And Saudi Arabia is infamous in many parts of the world for the way it treats the workers it imports. In January the Saudis beheaded a young woman from Sri Lanka who was only 17 in 2005 when she killed her employer’s baby in what very possibly was a sad accident. Scores of other domestic workers remain on Saudi Arabia’s death row as well, all of them awaiting the chill shock of the headsman’s sword.
In Northern Virginia, ICE did not waste any time. The Justice Department has made prosecution of trafficking cases a priority in recent years. But more importantly for the victims, ICE takes the attitude that its first responsibility is to liberate these household slaves. Otherwise they could be subject to continued abuse, or worse, as the case about their exploitation makes its way through the American courts. That’s a particularly dangerous situation for maids, nannies, and other domestics employed (if that is the word) by people granted immunity under international treaties. Although diplomats are supposed to abide by American laws, some feel both legally and morally unaccountable for their actions.
On Tuesday, agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, backed up by local police, went to the big colonial-style red-brick house with white columns in McLean and removed the two women. On Thursday the incident made headlines in the American press. The investigation into their case and the possibility that there are other victims of the same employers continues.
But in some respects the attention given this incident in the backyard of the nation’s capital (and only a couple of miles from the headquarters of the CIA) is misleading. So many other examples of human trafficking are worse—often much worse. Even though the United Nations estimates it’s a $32 billion business worldwide, most cases go almost unremarked.
“I want to say that human trafficking is real, that it is happening, that we shouldn’t be in denial,” Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, the U.N. special rapporteur on trafficking in persons told the Women in the World Summit last month.
On the same day that the two Filipinas were rescued from the house in Virginia, it’s worth noting, federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged 13 people with alleged involvement in international sex trafficking and prostitution. Dozens of women were victimized, according to the federal complaint. Several of them were brought from as far away as Mexico. (To get an idea of how these networks work, with a combination of cynical deception and ferocious coercion, watch this video from the 2012 Women in the World Summit.)
Since 2010, federal courts have charged 34 men and women allegedly affiliated with Somali gangs who were accused of trafficking seven young girls in Minnesota and Tennessee. But despite horrifying testimony from the victims, one of whom was supposed to have been 12 at the time she allegedly was sold for sex, federal prosecutors have had trouble making the charges stick. In December the three convictions won so far in the case were overturned.
The depredations of trafficking overseas are worse still, and so are the frustrations of those fighting it. Susana Trimarco in Argentina has campaigned for more than 11 years to try to find her daughter, “Marita,” kidnapped off the street near her home in 2002 and almost certainly forced into a life of prostitution. When Trimarco finally persuaded the authorities in Argentina to put some of the people who allegedly victimized her daughter on trial, they were acquitted. Then, just last year, Bolivian lawyer Marcela Martinez Sempéretegui lost her 17-year-old daughter off the streets of La Paz under circumstances similar to Marita’s abduction. She too has launched an international campaign. But most cases never make headlines, and very few are prosecuted. “Impunity” is a word used often and with deep despair by those who fight human trafficking in Latin America.
Sexual abuse may be part of the brutality faced by women and children forced or tricked into working as domestics in countries where they have no rights at all. Often they come from rural backgrounds in Sri Lanka or the Philippines, Indonesia or Latin America. Often they are illiterate and in many cases they are very young. According to Human Rights Watch, 15 million domestic workers around the world are children.
In Saudi Arabia, where the legal system is based on an extreme interpretation of Islam that is heavily weighted against any women, and doubly prejudicial to impoverished migrant workers, a lot of these girls don’t have a prayer if they get in trouble. The economies of the countries they come from are hugely dependent on the money sent home by those employed in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, so the governments often are leery of challenging the treatment they get. Only in the last few years, after horrific incidents reported in the press, have the Philippines and Indonesia pushed to establish better legal frameworks protecting their citizens in Saudi Arabia. (The case of the diplomat’s servants in Washington may shed light on how well those agreements are being observed.)
In some cases the servants do lash out with what seems insane violence. In March the Saudis sentenced an Indonesian housemaid to death for decapitating a 4-year-old boy with a meat cleaver while his parents and sisters were out of the house. Occasionally domestic workers accused of murder are able to raise the “blood money” to pay the victim’s family to have their death sentences canceled. But the price is usually hundreds of thousands of dollars, and if their own government or, more rarely, the Saudi government does not step forward with the cash, the headsman goes about his business.
In the case of Rizana Nafeek from Sri Lanka, she was feeding the Saudi infant put in her care with a bottle when the baby choked and died. Nafeek was only 17, from a rural village with little or no training as a nanny. She “was just a child herself at the time of the baby’s death,” as Nisha Varia of Human Rights Watch wrote afterwards. “She had no lawyer to defend her and no competent interpreter to translate here account.” Nafeek was beheaded on January 9 this year.
We do not yet know what abuse the two women from the Philippines working in the Saudi house in McLean may have suffered, if indeed they suffered at all. But as U.N. Rapporteur Ezeilo likes to remind people, it’s rare that women who’ve been trafficked, even as housemaids, find their way to freedom. “Some of them get lucky that they are rescued,” said Ezeilo. “But not everybody gets that lucky.” These two were.