Campus Ministry Offers Human Trafficking Presentation

Alexandria Smith, Web Master

After dedicating her career to the pursuit of human rights for the vulnerable, Wilkes-Barre native Colleen E. Owens returned to share her research with staff and students.

Owens, a researcher with the Urban Institute, has worked extensively to identify challenges related to the prosecution of human trafficking, a topic that several university officials felt was relevant to the University, said Director of Campus Ministry Chris Somers.

“I knew [trafficking] was a relevant topic, specifically with the Sisters of Mercy where they have these critical concerns about immigration, and women, and care for the earth, and non-violence, and so it kind of fits with our mission, and our charisms, and the whole social justice thing that we really try to promote in the University,” said Somers.

A national and international phenomenon made up of two categories, sex  and labor, human trafficking revolves “around three elements, force, fraud and coercion, that compel a person into commercial sex or other forms of labor or services” that, according to Owens, add up to modern-day slavery.

“I sort of look at (human trafficking) as twenty-first century slavery in America. So we might think that slavery was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment but actually it still does exist in our world. It still does exist in our backyard–here in Pennsylvania–and around the world,” Owens said.

According to a study that Owens presented,  composed of statistics on trafficking history, laws and real-life experiences from victims, most states did not pass laws criminalizing traffickers until 2004 or 2005. This often meant a person could be a victim of human trafficking within a certain state and have absolutely no protection.

“As a victim, your trafficker would not be arrested for the crimes committed against you, and you would not have access to services even though it’s considered a crime on the federal level,” said Owens.

According to modern human trafficking history, the only time a victim would be able to receive benefits was if the federal government decided to take up a victim’s case, and that is one of many issues that have prevented prosecution, Owens said.

Another problem is the lack of involvement from local authorities, who may or may not have proper training to identify the characteristics of trafficking. This is why Owens feels more needs to be done on a localized level, particularly when it comes to the trafficking of immigrants.

“What makes it difficult is that these ideas of slavery are seen as, or identified as, a person being put on a ship and brought over to the United States against their will. And what we’ll see now is the way it looks today is that it’s a lot more complicated, and how people are recruited for jobs, and how they come here, and what happens when they get here.  But that makes it no less serious (than the traditional understanding of slavery),” Owens said.

The most common and effective tools in a trafficker’s arsenal include isolation, restriction of communication, control of legal documents, confiscation of passports, lies and threats against an immigrant laborer’s family members in their home country, which can make it even harder to criminalize–especially if individuals refuse to testify. This is because immigrant laborers are still legally recruited in Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, making it both a criminal and labor issue.

The presentation was part of the Brown Bag Luncheon Lecture Series held in Insalaco Hall March 19.

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