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On the Record with Mary Burke of the Project to End Human Trafficking 

click to enlarge Mary Burke
  • Mary Burke

National Human Rights Day was Dec. 10, but the fight to combat human trafficking is far from over. In 2004, Mary Burke saw a documentary in which an undercover reporter was propositioned by children for sex. Outraged, Burke, director of the doctoral program in counseling psychology at Carlow University, began working with graduate students and learned there was much work to do to end modern-day slavery. They formed the Project to End Human Trafficking to conduct outreach and provide resources to victims. For more information, visit www.endhumantrafficking.org.

 

Talking about slavery conjures up images of the old South, of people buying and selling slaves. What does human trafficking look like today?

You're typically looking at [victims] coming from a country that's characterized as having very few resources and characterized as having a lot of poverty among the citizens. ... People who are looking for work usually are away from their home. ... These folks are not looking to get rich. Mostly [they want] to keep a roof over their head. We're talking about people [who are] able to work and make money as long as they are physically fit, so anyone from young kids, 4 and 5 years old, up to 50 years old are targeted.

How are victims drawn into this situation?

The most common way is usually [the victims] find something they think is legit employment, and then they get there and figure out, ‘Oh wow, it's not.' ... Their [identification] is taken, they have no resources, their movement is restricted and there's a threat of violence.

Cases like those covered in the media seem centered in places like Bangladesh, Cambodia or other far-away countries. What's the trafficking situation like domestically?

We're what's called a destination country -- any country that's more advanced. People are trafficked to our country and estimates range from [conservatively] 16,000 a year [up to] 50,000 to 100,000. People are trying to keep this under cover. It's underreported, and people's understanding of what human trafficking is clouds the issue. Police are arresting women for prostitution who don't speak English and don't have [legal documentation] and who are involved in trafficking.

Is this something that's happening in Pittsburgh?

In the past probably 3½ to 4 years, we've had close to 40 victims of human trafficking in Pittsburgh. Those are people who have come to our [attention] because they hear of what we're doing and we get contacted to support victims. I believe there are quite a few more. 

What type of work are these victims typically forced into?

A lot of victims here have been in agriculture; about 20 were working on a mushroom farm in Armstrong County. They came into the country legally, then when they arrived had their identification documents taken, their movement restricted and put to work. ... Two young women were prostituted out of a home in Squirrel Hill for several months. [They] came [here] from Russia on a student visa secured for what they thought was legitimate employment on Craigslist, but it wasn't.

Prostitution is sometimes referred to as a victimless crime. What's your response to that?

As long as women are socialized in an environment where we are still discriminated against, our bodies are objectified and commoditized, and we internalize it in ways that can make prostitution seem palatable for some, I don't actually think it's ever a free choice.

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